Tag Archives: nonprofit

What I’ve learned from working with mission-based organizations

Keep calm and be a unicorn

 

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned, in no particular order:

  1. You need to make sure that your mission, operations, and desired outcomes are aligned with each other.
  2. Movements for equity, inclusion, and belonging have the potential to revolutionize both mission-based organizations and philanthropy.
  3. Carefully tailored one-to-one desk-side coaching usually increases a worker’s effectiveness much more quickly than classroom training.
  4. The nonprofit/philanthropic sector in Massachusetts is different from the analogous sector in any other state in the U.S.A.
  5. Poverty is an insufficient reward for devoting one’s professional life to a nonprofit organization.
  6. In a mission-based organization, many problems that initially appear to be about information and communication technology are really about organizational culture, knowledge management, or a combination of organizational culture and knowledge management.
  7. Age discrimination is alive and well in mission-based organizations.
  8. It makes much more sense to aim to run a nonprofit organization like a highly effective organization, rather than to aim to run it like a business. There’s nothing inherently superior (or inferior) about businesses.
  9. Every human being is eligible to help others and to be helped by others; moreover, it’s a mistake to stigmatize being helped by others.
  10. Bringing token members of various demographic minorities into the building isn’t enough; real power means being at the table when crucial information is disseminated and crucial decisions are made.
  11. When you decide to solve a problem, you need help from the people who are deeply affected by the problem in order to determine:
  • the real nature of the problem
  • the possible solutions
  • a clear and specific idea of what success in solving the problem would look like

I invite you to leave comments about what lessons you’ve learned from working with mission-based organizations!

Or, if you prefer to send me a private message, you can do so by using the form shown below:

 

 

“The Power of Dialogue on Nonprofit Data and Evaluation.”

Calvin and Hobbes do a happy dance

Happy dance

This is a blog article about a blog article.  I’m doing a happy dance, because the Foundation Center‘s GrantSpace blog has published my article on “The Power of Dialogue on Nonprofit Data and Evaluation.”

Please feel free to read the article and give me your feedback!

In search of my next vocation!

"Excelsior!" Cartoon by James Thurber

“Excelsior!”   (Cartoon by James Thurber)

After five very productive years at Tech Networks of Boston (TNB), I am now looking for my next professional challenge. I’m ready for a career shift! I’ve notified the leadership at TNB, so this is not a covert search.

If you know about any job opportunities at organizations that need someone with my skill set, I’d love to hear about them. In my next job, I’d like to focus on some or all of the following:

  • Weaving networks among nonprofit organizations in order to build collaboration, peer learning, and communities of practice.
  • Building the capacity of philanthropic and nonprofit organizations to achieve and document their desired outcomes.
  • Fostering equity, inclusion, social justice, and corporate social responsibility.
  • Aiding philanthropic and nonprofit organizations in seamlessly matching resources with needs.
  • Establishing best practices in the strategic use of information and communication technologies among mission-based organizations.
  • Facilitating candid dialogue and successful collaborations between grantmakers and grantees.

I invite you to peruse my LinkedIn profile and my résumé, and to get in touch with me about any contacts or opportunities that you’d like to suggest.

Please help me find new ways to serve organizations and individuals who are working to make the world a better place!

Deborah Elizabeth Finn – résumé – June 2018

 

 

 

 

How grant makers and nonprofit grant recipients can do great things together with data and evaluation

This is not actually a photo from the dialogue series. We refrained from taking photos, because we wanted to foster an atmosphere of candor and comfort as grantors and grantees engaged in conversation about a difficult topic. However, it is a favorite photo from another recent Tech Networks of Boston event.

 

Oh, my!  It took Tech Networks of Networks almost two years to organize and implement a series of candid dialogues about data and evaluation for grantors and nonprofit grantees, and now it’s complete.  The process was a collaboration in itself, with TSNE MissionWorks, and Essential Partners serving as co-hosts. An advisory group and planning group gave crucial input about the strategy and tactics for this event.

What you see here are a few notes that reflect my individual experience. In this article, I am not speaking on behalf of any organization or individual.

As far as I can ascertain, this series was the first in which grant makers and nonprofit grant recipients came together in equal numbers and met as peers for reflective structured dialogue. World class facilitation and guidance was provided by Essential Partners, with the revered Dave Joseph serving as facilitator-in-chief.

Here’s how I’d characterize the three sessions:

  • June 2017:  Let’s get oriented. What is the heart of the matter for grantors and grantees?
  • September 2017:  You know, we really need to address the imbalance of power in the grantor/grantee relationship.
  • January 2018:  Ok, can we agree on some best practices how to address this as grantors and grantees? Why, yes. We can.

The plan is to make the recommendations that came out of the final dialogue publicly available online, to provide a starting point for a regional or even national conversation about data and evaluation.

Meanwhile, I’d like to offer my own recommendations.  Mine are based on what I learned during the dialogue series, and also on untold numbers of public and private conversations on the topic.

 

_____________________________________________________________________________

 

My Recommendations

 

Funders can help by: 

  • Understanding that nonprofits perceive funders as having not just money but also much more power.
  • Asking nonprofits to define their goals, their desired outcomes, and their quantitative measures of success – rather than telling them what these should be.
  • Factoring in the nonprofit organization’s size, capacity, and budget – making sure that the demand for data and evaluation is commensurate.
  • Understanding the real cost in dollars to grantees who provide the data reporting and evaluation that you request.  These dollar amounts might be for staff time, technology, training, an external consultant, or even for office supplies.
  • Providing financial support for any data or evaluation that the funder needs –  especially if the nonprofit does not have an internal need for that data or evaluation.    Items to support might include staff time, technology, training, or retaining an external consultant with the necessary skill set.
  • Putting an emphasis on listening.

 

Nonprofits can help by: 

  • Engaging in a quantitative analysis of their operations and capacity, and sharing this information with funders.
  • Understanding that grant makers are motivated to see nonprofit grant recipients succeed.
  • Understanding that grant makers are often under pressure from donors and their boards to deliver a portfolio of outcomes.
  • Integrating the use of data and evaluation into most areas of operation – this means building skills in data and evaluation across the entire organization.
  • Gathering with other nonprofits that have similar desired outcomes and comparing notes on failures and best practices.
  • Fostering a data-friendly, continuous learning culture within nonprofit organizations.

 

Both groups can help by: 

  • Engaging in self-scrutiny about how factors such as race and class affect how data is collected, categorized, analyzed, and reported.
  • Talking frankly about how power dynamics affect their relationships.
  • Engaging in ongoing dialogue that is facilitated by a third party who is experienced in creating a safe space.
  • Talking about and planning the evaluation process well before the grant begins.
  • Creating clear definitions of key terms pertaining to data and evaluation.
  • Making “I don’t know” an acceptable response to a question.
  • Measuring what you really value, rather than simply valuing what you can easily measure.
  • Working toward useful standards of measurement.  Not all programs and outcomes are identical, but very few are entirely sui generis.
  • Sharing responsibility for building the relationship.
  • Speaking with each other on a regular basis.
  • Studying (and implementing) community-based participatory research methods.

 

_____________________________________________________________________________

 

And now, because I can insert a poll here, I’m going to.

 

 

 

_____________________________________________________________________________

 

And now, because I can insert a contact form here, I’m going to.  Please feel free to let me know if you’re interested in being part of a regional or national conversation about how grantors and grantees can move forward and work constructively with data and evaluation.

 

 

_____________________________________________________________________________

 

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My ever expanding theory of change for nonprofit data and evaluation

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!

Drowning in data, drafting a data checklist, and asking “WHY?”

Two poster boys of nonprofit data sanity: Bob Penna (l) and Steve Pratt (r).

Two poster boys of nonprofit data sanity: Bob Penna (l) and Steve Pratt (r).

Now that TNB Labs is up and running, we’re receiving a lot of requests from nonprofit organizations who are perplexed about how to manage the data that they have, before they plunge any further into data analytics or think about acquiring a new data analysis tool.  This has given me a lot of opportunities to reflect on how difficult it can be for people whose expertise lies elsewhere to orient themselves to data governance.

Steve Pratt‘s blog article “Drowning in Data?” has been a huge inspiration.  In it, he explains the importance of data inventories, and offers to send the Root Cause template to anyone who requests it.  I highly recommend that you send an email to info@rootcause.org, and ask for a copy.

At the same time, as I went over Steve’s template, I had a nagging feeling that we needed something even more elementary.  Remembering my friend Bob Penna‘s exhortation of a few months before, about asking “who, when, where, what, how, and why,” I quickly drafted a data checklist that focused on those basic questions.  When I sent it to Bob, he very quickly returned it with some excellent enhancements; the most brilliant one was to start the checklist with the question “WHY?”  As he very sensibly pointed out, if you can’t come up with a good reason why you are collecting, analyzing, reporting, and archiving information, you might as well stop there.  In the absence of a persuasive answer to the question “why?” there’s no need to ask “who, when, where, what, and how;” in fact there’s no reason to collect it at all.

With that wisdom in mind, I have tweaked the draft of the data checklist, and herewith present it to you for feedback. This version is the result of a Penna/Finn collaboration:

You can view it by clicking on this link.

Before you take a look at it, I recommend reading “Drowning in Data?”  After you’ve perused the spreadsheet, I recommend reading Bob Penna’s book, “The Nonprofit Outcomes Toolbox.”

 

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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.

 

 

Sunlighting

sunlighting.jpg

So now we have launched TNB Labs, and all sorts of queries are starting to come in – not just from folks who needs services, but also from folks who want to be part of our circle of mavens who provide services.

From the beginning, we have thought of TNB Labs as a lean organization, nurturing a community of practice that would provide fractional resources to nonprofits that need data and evaluation services.

What follow here are some personal reflections on mobilizing a community of practice.  These are free associations, based on a recent conversation with Susan Labandibar.  Please don’t regard these ideas as official TNB Labs policy, but as an invitation to engage in your own free associations.

Let’s talk about a hypothetical scenario.

Let’s say that you are a full time employee of a medium-size nonprofit organization.  Your job title is “data analyst.” By temperament and training, you are a data geek, and you are proud of using your powers for good.   You are passionate about the importance of your work, because it helps your organization document the ways in which it is making the world a better place, while also identifying ways that it could do even better.

However, there are a few things that aren’t perfect about your job:

1) You’re the only person with any kind information technology training at your organization.

1a) This means that you don’t really have people with whom you can regularly compare notes about the intersection of technology and the nonprofit sector.

1b) It also means that you are asked to do all sorts of tasks that aren’t in your areas of interest or expertise, because you are reputed to “know all about computers.”  In vain, you do your best to explain that social media campaigns require a different skill set from data analysis, even though there could be some overlap.

2) You’re interested in new challenges, such as becoming an evaluation specialist.  However, you don’t want to quit your job at a nonprofit organization that you love, even though you don’t see opportunities opening up there.

3) You’d like to get some experience with the challenges at other nonprofits, but you don’t really want to moonlight, because that implies doing something underhanded, without the knowledge of your home organization.

How about sunlighting?  (Not to be confused with the Sunlight Foundation, which is a great and entirely unrelated organization with a great and entirely different mission.)

Here’s how sunlighting might work for you:

1) You join the TNB Labs Community of Practice, which has regular meetings for peer support and professional development.

2) You work with TNB Labs and your home organization to create a three-cornered agreement, so that a certain percentage of your time is devoted to assignments from TNB Labs to provide services at other nonprofits.  (That’s what we mean by “fractional resources.”)  It’s all done in an ethical and above-board manner.  TNB Labs takes responsibility for finding assignments, invoicing the client organizations, and paying you.  It might even represent a cost saving for your home organization; they can hire an entry level person at a lower rate to do some of your routine tasks.  It will mean less boredom for you, and valuable on-the-job experience for the entry level person.

3) In accordance with nonprofit client demand and your preferences, your potential TNB Labs assignments will vary.  They might involve 2 hours or 200 hours of time for a one time-project, or they might involve an hour or a day every week for three years.

4) TNB Labs’ share will be an administrative fee.  This will be an excellent value for the client nonprofit, because they can get a fraction of the time of a first-rate professional (that’s you) without having to add another full time position to their payroll for a set of tasks that doesn’t require a full time person.

If you’re a nonprofit data analyst, would you consider this scenario?

If you’re an executive at a nonprofit organization that needs data analysis or evaluation services, would you consider going to TNB Labs for help from a member of our community of practice?

I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments section!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meet the volunteer nonprofit technology mavens of March 2015!

An Evening of Pro Bono, Sales-Pitch-Free Tech...

 

I love working with Annkissam, and one of my favorite tasks is assisting in organizing their pro bono, sales-pitch-free  tech consultation events for local nonprofit professionals.

The next pro bono event will be on the evening of March 31st at the Cambridge Innovation Center.

Tech Networks of Boston and 501 Partners will be serving as co-hosts; I love to see these three mission-driven nonprofit technology assistance firms collaborating to serve nonprofit organizations.

I also love to see a wide range of other nonprofit technology mavens volunteering a few hours of their time at these events to offer consultations to any of the nonprofit guests who request assistance and advice.  In addition to the immediate help that this provides to the attendees, the event is a opportunity for nonprofit techies to do skills-based volunteering together, and sends a crucial message about our ability to collaborate.

Here is the all-star March 2015 team of nptech volunteers!

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.

Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk outlines a necessary factor in successfully implementing a nonprofit technology project

Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, CEO and founder of Community TechKnowledge

 

I’ve learned a lot from my buddy Tom McLaughlin, but the moment I first became a devoted fangirl of his was when I heard that he had quipped, “organizational culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

It’s true.  It’s so true in nonprofit technology that it hurts every time I think about it. However, I was immediately and immensely grateful to Tom for articulating so succinctly and eloquently what had been merely tacit knowledge for me.

One of the biggest problems in any nonprofit technology implementation is the difficulty in reconciling it with the organization’s culture.  It’s not just that individuals within it may not want to learn new things or do things differently – it’s that every organization is a delicate ecosystem of incentives, disincentives, alliances, and hostilities. A change in information and communication technology systems can easily upset the organization’s equilibrium.  Just the same, new implementations may become necessary, and at that point the challenge is not to arrive at an abstract understanding of group dynamics, but to gain the good will and participation of all the stakeholders by demonstrating that the potential benefits of the change are far greater than the threats to the status quo.

In other words, getting buy-in becomes a crucial goal; its a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for the success of the implementation.  This is a cost-benefit analysis that takes place at a very emotional level at a nonprofit organization.

That’s where Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk can help.  She’s just published a white paper on “Getting 100% Buy-In for Your Next Nonprofit Technology Adoption.”  You can download it for free from the Community TechKnowledge web site.  I strongly recommend it!

(And now for a full disclosure of financial relationship:  I’ve served as a paid consultant to Kathryn’s organization, Community TechKnowledge, for some time.  However, she did not ask me to endorse this white paper, and she certainly is not paying me to recommend it.)

 

 

 

 

“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.

 

It’s not just a half-day outcomes management training for nonprofit executives – it’s an occasion for rejoicing!

snoopy happy dance

For more than two years, I have been worrying aloud about the lack of training for nonprofit professionals who want to lead their organizations in implementing outcomes management and data visualization.  Today I’m rejoicing, because Tech Networks of Boston opened registration for a free (and sales-pitch-free) half-day outcomes management training for nonprofit executives.

It’s happening in April because some wonderful allies have stepped up – such as TNB’s co-hosts, the Mel King Institute and the College of Public and Community Service at the University of Massachusetts, and the wonderful Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk of Community TechKnowledge, who will serve as our trainer.

This isn’t the full series of three day-long trainings on outcomes management and outcomes data visualization that I had originally envisioned, and that I still hope we can organize.  If we are able to do that, the other trainers will be the equally wonderful Beth Kanter and Georges Grinstein.  Right now, I’m looking at plans for Kathryn’s half-day outcomes management training as a miracle in itself, but also as the thin edge of the wedge.  (If you prefer more up to date jargon, you can call it a “proof of concept.”)

Of course, my thinking has become even more grandiose since I originally came up with the idea of a three-day outcomes/data viz training series.  Now I’m thinking in terms of a “Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology,” in which the first initiative would be a degree program in nonprofit data analysis.

Let’s take this training opportunity, which will be brief in comparison to the more elaborate programs that I’ve envisioned, and build on it!

 

 

How much fun is the Nonprofit Technology Conference? This much fun. (Plus some thoughts about shifting from tactical to strategic support of nonprofit organizations.)

Deborah is delighted by the artist's rendition of a concept of Tech Networks of Boston's. The photo was taken at the Netsuite.Org booth, at the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference .

Photo by Peggy Duvette of Netsuite.Org.

The good folks of Netsuite.Org had a great idea for their exhibit area at the Nonprofit Technology Conference this year.  They asked attendees to describe their technology visions in three words.  I chose “shared” “data,” and “outcomes.” and an artist quickly drew up a visual to express this.  (Unfortunately, I did not note down her name; I hope I can find it in order to give her proper credit for her work.)  The photo shown above was taken by Peggy Duvette, and as you can see, I was delighted to see this concept, which is part of Tech Networks of Boston’s strategic thinking, become part of the patchwork quilt of ideas that were being expressed.

Here’s a close-up of the TNB concept:

I (Deborah) took this photo at the Netsuite.Org booth, at the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference. Alas, I did not note down the name of the artist who did this drawing.

I took this photo at the Netsuite.Org booth, at the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference. Alas, I did not note down the name of the artist who did this drawing.

At TNB, we are thinking more and more about collaborative technology management – not just in terms of how we work with our nonprofit clients, but also about how clusters of NTAPs and nonprofits can work together toward a shared long term goal.   We have great relationships (and in many cases, shared nonprofit clients) with some great local nonprofit technology assistance providers, such as Annkissam* and 501Partners.  The three NTAPs are already collaborating on a series of sales-pitch-free evenings in which local nonprofit professionals are offered pro bono tech consultations.

However, the potential exists to do so much more, especially considering how many clients we share.

Wouldn’t it be great if the three NTAPs could offer their shared clients the following:

1) Seamless integration of TNB, AK, and 501P’s services.

2) Shared best practices for clusters of nonprofits with similar programs, operations, or missions.

3) Coordinated outcomes measurement and management for nonprofits that have overlapping constituencies.

The joy of #15NTC is in realizing that although we are just three NTAPs in one region, we are part of a wider movement.  In fact, if you were to look at the entire collection of artist’s renderings that were done at the Netsuite.Org exhibit area, you’d see that many nonprofit organizations are on the cusp of dreaming this dream.  Most of in the nonprofit sector understand that for lasting positive change in the world, one program at a single nonprofit organization is not enough.  The future is in sharing and coordinating our work.  What if nonprofit technology assistance providers started with that challenge, rather than the challenge of keeping a network server from crashing?  The emphasis would shift from the tactical support of nonprofits to the strategic support of their missions.  And by “missions,” I don’t mean vague statements; I mean specific (and even quantifiable) positive changes that nonprofit profits have committed themselves to delivering to their stakeholders.

Because mission achievement is why we all get up in the morning to do our jobs.

And because building a nonprofit technology movement that supports mission achievement is the best possible reason for participating in the Nonprofit Technology Conference.

 

* I also serve Annkissam directly as a consultant.

 

 

 

I want a ribbon on my conference badge that says “TECHNOBABE”

15ntc name badge

 

Behold my name badge from the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference (also known as #15ntc).

I’m much obliged to my beloved friend Peter Campbell for the #NTCBEER button, which I wore proudly throughout the conference.  You know it’s not just a good party but a great yearly tradition when a nondrinker looks forward to it.

However, at the moment, I want to call attention to the “Diva” and “Instigator” ribbons attached to my badge.  This was a brilliant swag offering from the folks at the Strategic Fulfillment table in the conference’s exhibit hall.  Usually at conferences, ribbons are given out by the event organizers to sponsors, exhibitors, speakers, and various other V.I.P.s.  The Strategic Fulfillment Group was smart enough to make it a matter egalitarian self-determination.  Any visitor was welcome to take and wear the ribbon of his or her choice.

I like “Diva” and “Instigator,” but the ribbon I really want is one that says “TECHNOBABE.”

 

 

The Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology: Let’s Do This!

Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology

 

We need a Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology, and I can tell you what degree program we need to establish first:  Bachelor of Nonprofit Data.

The inspiration for this comes from many conversations with many people, but I’d especially like to credit Susan Labandibar, Julia Gittleman, and Laura Beals for pointing out, in their different ways, that one of the most pressing real-life challenges in nonprofit technology today is finding people who can bridge between the outcomes / impact assessment / evaluation / research team (on one hand) and the information systems team (on the other hand) at a nonprofit organization.

Not that I’m a professional full-time data analyst myself, but if I were, I’d find the numbers, and start doing the math:

  • How many brilliant computer scientists are graduating right here in Massachusetts every year from our best high schools, colleges, and universities?
  • Of those graduates, what percentage have strong skills in database design, database development, database management, or data analysis?
  • Of those who have strong data skills, what percentage would be eager to use their geek skills for good, if they were offered an attractive career ladder?

That’s our applicant pool for the Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology.  (Or MINT, if you prefer.)

Now, let’s figure out the absolute minimum of additional knowledge that these computer science graduates would need in order to be the kind of data analysts who could bridge between the outcomes / impact assessment / evaluation / research team and the information systems team  at a nonprofit:

  • Outcomes measurement
  • Outcomes management
  • Impact assessment
  • Evaluation
  • Social research methods
  • Knowledge management
  • Organizational cultures of nonprofits
  • Nonprofit operations
  • Organizational cultures of philanthropic foundations

That’s our basic curriculum.

If we want to expand the curriculum beyond the basics, we can add these elective subjects:

  • Nonprofit budgeting
  • Group dynamics
  • Ethics
  • Etiquette
  • Negotiation
  • Project management
  • Appreciative inquiry
  • Meeting facilitation

All of these electives would pave the way for other degree programs, in which they would also be extremely useful:

  • Bachelor of Nonprofit Systems Engineering
  • Bachelor of Nonprofit Web Development
  • Bachelor of Nonprofit Help Desk Support
  • Bachelor of Nonprofit Hands On Tech Support
  • Bachelor of Nonprofit Social Media

I already have my eye on some great local colleagues who could be the faculty for the Bachelor of Nonprofit Data program.  In addition to Susan, Julia, and Laura, I’d want to recruit these folks:

Please note that three members of the TNB team top the list of potential faculty members.  Why?  Because I work there, and because TNB has set a Big Hairy Audacious Goal of developing the careers of 1,000 technology professionals. This undertaking would be very congruent with its vision!

However, setting up the Massachusetts Institute of Nonprofit Technology must be a collaborative effort.  It will take a strong network of colleagues and friends to make this happen.

Do you think that this is needed?  Do you think my plan needs a lot of work?  Do you have any ideas or resources that you’d like to suggest?  Please feel free to use the comments section here to share your thoughts.

NPtech Labor Market Alert: The Big Job Title of 2015 Will Be “Data Analyst”

 

Disclaimer: This illustration is for entertainment purposes only. I am not a professional data analyst.

Disclaimer: This illustration is for entertainment purposes only. I am not a professional data analyst.

 

My training, such as it is, is heavily skewed toward qualitative methods; at the same time, I have a lot of respect for quantitative analysis.  However, my favorite form of research consists of staring off into space and letting ideas float into my head.  Sometimes I validate my findings by engaging in conversations in which I talk louder and louder until everyone agrees that I’m right.  It seems to work.

Lately, I’ve had a little time to stare off into space and let ideas float into my head; by this, I mean that I traveled to Austin, Texas for the Nonprofit Technology Conference (also known as #15ntc) and had some down time on the plane.  By the time I arrived in Austin, I had become convinced that “Data Analyst” would be this year’s standout job title in the field of nptech.  At the conference, I was able to confirm this – by which I mean that I didn’t meet anyone there who talks more loudly than I do.

What are the take-ways?  It depends on who you are:

  • For data analysts who are now working in the field of nonprofit technology:  prepare to be appreciated.
  • For data analysts now working in other sectors: think about whether this is a good moment to make a career shift in which you use your geek powers for good. But make sure you know what you’re getting into.
  • For nonprofit executives: don’t kid yourselves. Brilliant data analysts who want to work in the nonprofit sector aren’t going to be attracted by job announcements that indicate that the successful candidate will also be responsible for network administration, hands-on tech support, social media, and web development.
  • For workforce development professionals:  this is your cue. It’s time to put together a program for training computer science graduates to be nonprofit data geeks.
  • For donors, grantmakers, and other funders:  if you want reports from nonprofits are based on reliable and valid methods of analysis, then you will need to underwrite data analysts at nonprofits.  That means money for training, for salaries, and for appropriate technology.

If you don’t agree with my findings, please take a moment to share yours in the comments section.

If you don’t know anyone at #15NTC, come stand (or sit) next to me!

15ntc

Srsly!

I’m very excited about participating in NTEN’s upcoming Nonprofit Technology Conference (also known as #15NTC) in Austin, Texas!

I’ve been recruited by NTEN for my favorite volunteer task:  staffing the NTENer Center.  I’ll be at the Center on March 4th and 5th.  My job is to answer questions, engage people in conversation, and introduce them to each other.  (Actually, that’s what I enjoy doing throughout the conference – you can flag me down whenever you like, and not just when I’m on duty at the NTENer Center.)

Not only would I like to thank the NTEN team for tapping me to by an official greeter, I’d also like to thank Tech Networks of Boston for sending me to #15NTC as its representative.

My first nonprofit technology conference was the precursor to NTC, the Circuit Rider Roundup in Denver (2001).  It struck me then that it was really important to assist all attendees in feeling welcomed and included.   I like introducing people to each other, and have been doing my best ever since.

 

 

Is KM for you?

km equals no wtf

I had a great time collaborating with Rachael Stark (the uber librarian) on the Annkissam white paper about knowledge management for nonprofits.  One of our challenges in writing it was our recognition that many nonprofit professionals might be in a lot of organizational pain without realizing that the pain might be addressed by a knowledge management strategy.  We then had fun coming up with typical scenarios that anyone would recognize as problems, and that we knew to be knowledge management challenges.  By articulating them, we might be able to meet nonprofit professionals where they were and offer them assistance.

We were well into the creation of the white paper, when I realized that I had been unconsciously influenced by a pamphlet that a friend of mine gave me long ago.  He was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, and this pamphlet asked some simple questions to help problem drinkers decide whether A.A. was for them.

Here are the scenarios that Rachael and I offered in our white paper on knowledge management for nonprofits.  If you are a nonprofit professional, you can decide for yourself whether KM is for you:

  • When a staff member gets sick, takes a leave, retires, resigns, or goes on vacation, then other employees are unable to locate crucial information.
  • The executive director (or another top-level staff member) is scheduled to retire, but his/her most crucial organizational knowledge is not written down, and there is no strategy in place for conveying it to his/her successor.
  • Project teams generate multiple versions of key documents, but it’s hard to gather all the changes in one place. No one knows for sure which version is the final one, and the wrong version may be used by accident.
  • Staff members don’t know which colleague to approach with questions on a specific topic.
  • No one in the nonprofit organization is certain about the history or current status of its relationship with a specific project, funder, or partner.
  • Manuals of policies and procedures exist, but staff members have difficulty finding the relevant passage in them when they have a specific question that urgently needs to be answered.
  • Staff members don’t know about existing resources and reports that could help them make good strategic decisions.
  • Standard information that is needed for a routine operation must be gathered by hand from disparate paper and electronic sources each time it is needed.
  • The organization has scaled up to national operations. Now that the staff members are geographically distant from each other, they have difficulty sharing or obtaining
    information from their colleagues.
  • Staff members feel frustrated, rushed and overworked because information is hard to find, or because they are never confident they have the right version.
  • It is difficult to determine whether the nonprofit organization is meeting its mission fully, partially, or not at all.
  • If the nonprofit organization is meeting its mission, it is difficult to ascertain what factors are making this possible, and what factors are extraneous.

Alcoholics Anonymous is a great organization, and one of the bits of A.A. wisdom my friend taught me is that success in helping people happens through “attraction, not promotion.” It is only when people are in enough pain that they are able to hear that help is available and willing to try doing things differently. Perhaps we can hypothesize, in a limited way, that as with recovery from alcoholism, so with adoption of a knowledge management strategy within a nonprofit organization.

Disinvitations are painful but sometimes necessary

disinvited

I’m so excited about this evening’s pro bono tech consultation event for employees of local nonprofit professionals!

At the same time, I’m now in the painful position of needing to issue disinvitations to people who want to come.

Why?  Well, the reasons vary:

  • We’re holding this event in a building that has tight security, and were obliged to submit the final guest list last Friday.  People who try to enter without confirmed invitations may be escorted out ignominiously by security officers, and it’s best to avoid that.
  • We have a long waiting list.  The people on that list who honor our request not to show up without a confirmed reservation would be slighted if we allowed others to walk in.  Moreover, we’d be condoning rude behavior if we allowed people to walk in to an event that is by reservation only.
  • We have made it clear to the mavens that they will be volunteering their time to serve employees of nonprofit organizations.  This was made clear to the invitees as well.  It’s rude and possibly fraudulent to take advantage of free services that are intended only for nonprofit professionals.

I have a surprisingly wide conservative streak, when it comes to etiquette.  I am fully capable of being shocked when people are oblivious to (or intentionally ignore) the ground rules of events that are by invitation only.

 

Meet the #NPtech mavens of November 2014!

I (heart) NPtech

On Monday, November 3rd, Annkissam, Tech Networks of Boston, and 501Partners
will be co-hosting an evening of pro bono, sales-pitch-free tech consultations for local nonprofit professionals!

This event will take place at the Venture Cafe in Kendall Square.  Nearly seventy nonprofit  professionals will be able to have short one-to-one consultations with as many mavens as they like.   (I will be one of them, offering consultations about strategic tech planning, knowledge management, social media, web strategy, and some other topics.)

I want to give a big shout out to my fellow mavens, who are volunteering to serve the nonprofit attendees in a completely sales-pitch-free environment:

In addition to the excitement of an event that enables me to work with a slew of nonprofits that are making the world a better place, I love the idea of showing the world that our local community of nonprofit technology professionals is a surprisingly collaborative one.  Three nonprofit technology assistance companies are coming together to host and underwrite the evening, and the 21 mavens will be working side by side in one room.  We’ll be encouraging all of our guests from the nonprofit sector to solicit second, third, and fourth opinions.  The goal isn’t to block them from exposure to other vendors, but to make sure they have the information they need and an opportunity to identify resources that are a good fit for their needs.

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.

Pro bono help for Boston area nonprofit professionals: Three opportunities

pro bono

I am often asked if I can offer pro bono assistance to nonprofit organizations that need help aligning their technology strategies with their overall organizational strategies.

The good news is that there are three different events in the near future where I’ll be offering pro bono strategic tech consultations:

  1. At the Annkissam table, October 29th. (Massachusetts Nonprofit Network Conference & Expo, Sheraton Framingham.)  I will also be one of the facilitators at a conference workshop on knowledge management for small nonprofits, along with Mollie Murphy, Kevin Palmer, and Jim Fisk.  For more information, please follow this link.
  2. At the Venture Cafe on November 3rd. (Cambridge Innovation Center, Kendall Square.)  The co-hosts of this event are Annkissam, Tech Networks of Boston, and 501Partners.  I will be one of 21 nonprofit technology mavens!  This event is currently booked to capacity, but you can put yourself on the waiting list by following this link.
  3. At the Annkissam table, November 17th, (Providers Council Convention & Expo, Boston Marriot Copley Place.)  For more information, please follow this link.

When I provide strategic pro bono assistance to nonprofits, it’s on the following basis:

  • No charge to the nonprofit organization
  • No sales pitches to the nonprofit organization
  • No further obligation on the part of the nonprofit organization

If you are a Boston area nonprofit professional in need of strategic technology assistance, then I hope to see you at one or more of these events!

Revamping the Nonprofit Tech jobs list

nptechjobs list

 

I’ve moved the Nonproft Tech Jobs email distribution list over from Yahoo Groups to Google Groups.  The reason is simple:  Yahoo Groups doesn’t offer an RSS feed, and Google Groups does.  What a trivial point of pain!

However, I’m very excited that NTEN now has a nonprofit tech jobs feed, and Amy Sample Ward asked me to point it at the @NPTechJobs Twitter account, which I was delighted to do.  This gave me nudge I needed to move the list I started to a platform that made it not only possible but easy to use its RSS feed.

Peter Miller on what nonprofit organizations need to know about community technology centers

peterbrodiemiller

At the Tech Networks of Boston Roundtable on November 7th, Peter Miller will be the featured guest, and the topic will be what nonprofit organizations need to know about community technology centersThird Sector New England will be playing cohost, and the session will be held at the Boston NonProfit Center.

If you’re wondering why you, as a nonprofit professional, need to know at all about community technology centers (CTCs), here are a few points to consider:

1) If your organization offers advocacy or direct services to the community, then it’s important to know that CTCs are powerful resources for your constituents.  They provide access to online tools and information, skills training, and a focal point for community members that are interested in bridging the digital divide.

2) Some CTCs are based in community access television organizations, and a key places for community members to learn about the overlap between online communications and other forms of media.

3) Some CTCs are based in libraries, and it’s clear that professional librarians can be powerful allies for nonprofits and their constituents.  Librarians understand about free access to information and about knowledge for the public good; they can bring their skills to bear in bridging not only the digital divide but the knowledge divide.

4) Some CTCs are based in housing developed by community development corporations.  They can be crucial in assisting residents with online education, with finding and applying for jobs, and with online organizing for local needs.

5) CTCs can help your nonprofit with its internal professional development needs, if they are offering courses or certification in software or hardware skills that are crucial to your operations.

In general, the worldwide community technology movement is a power for social good, and you should at least be briefed on what it’s all about!

Visualizing the role of data for mission-based organizations – Round II

I am much obliged to all the good folks who have posted suggestions and feedback about my first attempt to create an image that would represent my thinking on the role of data in mission-based organizations.  Likewise, those who emailed me their thoughts deserve thanks!
I’ve created a revised version that incorporates some of the feedback.  Before you take a look at it, please bear in mind that:

  1. I am not a graphic designer.
  2. I am not attempting to create a graphic that illustrates everyone’s ideas about the role of data in a mission-based organization.  I am merely trying to illustrate my ideas.
Visualizing the role of data for mission-based organizations - Round II

Visualizing the role of data for mission-based organizations – Round II

Item #2 on the list notwithstanding, I am enjoying very much the opportunity to learn more about what others in the field think about (and visualize) when they ponder the role of data in our sector.  Once again, I invite you to post your reflections, suggestions, and questions in the comments section here on this blog.

Data Day 2013 in Boston

Data Day 2013:  I'll be offering pro bono strategic tech consultations

 

I’m excited about Data Day at Northeastern University tomorrow, which is being co-hosted by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and the Boston Indicators Project.

I’ll be offering pro bono strategic tech consults at this event; my time is being underwritten by Tech Networks of Boston. If you’re planning to attend, please come say hello to me! Just look for this sign.

 

And now, a word from your Senior Technical Advisor and Strategist…

Tech Networks of Boston

deborah-finn

I am totally delighted to announce that I have joined Tech Networks of Boston as their Senior Technical Advisor and Strategist.  It’s a pleasure to count as immediate colleagues my friends Susan Labandibar and Michael Fenter, and to be working with the client engagement team headed up by the awesome John Marchiony!

Here’s the TNB mission:

  • Engage with people at all levels of the client organization so that they can learn, manage information, and communicate easily in a safe and supportive computing environment.
  • Use experience, skills, and knowledge to help our clients build a mature information technology function that aligns with organizational mission and goals.
  • Enable nonprofit organizations to use innovative and effective information technology tools to serve human needs.

Talk about mission alignment!  I’ve already dedicated my professional life to these goals (plus a few others), but now I will be an integral part of an organization whose motto is “we’re better together,” rather than a lone nut! The ultimate in desired outcomes is that the world will be a better place, because the organizations that Tech Networks of Boston is serving will be succeeding in their missions.

At the same time, I want to assure my current clients that I will continue to be available to them on the usual basis, whenever they wish.  My commitment to TNB is for four-fifths time, to allow me to continue to work with clients as a solo practitioner.

If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to be in touch through the usual channels.  You are also welcome to contact me at my new office:

Tech Networks of Boston
1 Wadleigh Place
South Boston, MA  02127
617.269.0299 x (359)
888.527.9333 Fax
deborah.elizabeth.finn@techboston.com
http://www.techboston.com

“Power corrupts. PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.” (Redux)

A slide from the PowerPoint version of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address

This is another article, salvaged with help from the Wayback Machine, from my now-defunct first blog. I think that the points I made then are as valid in 2013 as they were in 2005.  What do you think?

Mon 14 Feb 2005 06:41 AM EST

Most days of the week, I tend to think of information technology as morally neutral.  It isn’t inherently good or evil; the applications of a technology are good or evil.

But I do find some forms of information technology irritating or counter-productive – especially as they are often used in the nonprofit/philanthropic sector.

PowerPoint happens to be in that category.

I came to conclusion through my favorite research method.  (I.e., staring off into space for about half an hour.)  During this strenuous research, I asked myself two questions:

  1. When have I enjoyed giving a presentation based on PowerPoint?
  2. When have I enjoyed or learned a lot from someone else’s PowerPoint presentation?

Although I try to avoid giving PowerPoint presentations these days, I had no trouble answering Question #1 on the basis of previous experience.  I almost always liked it.  It’s great to have my talking points, my graphic displays, and my annotations packaged in one document.  Assuming that there’s no equipment failure on the part of the projector, the screen, the computer, or the storage medium that holds the PowerPoint document – it’s very convenient – although it’s not very safe to assume that none of these factors will fail.

In short, PowerPoint is designed to make presenters reasonably happy.  (Except in cases of equipment failure.)

The answer to Question #2 is a little more difficult.  I can be an exacting judge of how information is presented, and of whether the presenter is sensitive to the convenience and learning styles of the audience.

Perhaps the presenter put too many points on each slide, or too few.  Perhaps I was bored, looking at round after round of bulleted text, when graphic displays would have told the story more effectively.  Perhaps I wondered why the presenter expected me to copy the main points down in my notebook, when he/she knew all along what they were going to be.  Perhaps the repeated words, “next slide, please,” spoken by the presenter to his/her assistant seemed to take on more weight through sheer repetition than the content under consideration.  Perhaps there were too many slides for the time allotted, or they were not arranged in a sequence that made it easy to re-visit specific points during the question and answer period.

In short, PowerPoint as a medium of presentation does not tend to win friends and influence people.  (Of course, the best designed PowerPoint presentations succeed spectacularly, but the likelihood of creating or viewing one is fairly low.)

However, all is not lost.  If you have struggled to attain some high-level PowerPoint skills, and your role in a nonprofit/philanthropic organization calls for you to make frequent presentations, I can offer you advice in the form of the following three-point plan:

  1. Knock yourself out.  Create the PowerPoint presentation of your dreams.  Include all the bells and whistles.  Be sure to write up full annotations for each slide.
  2. Print out this incredible PowerPoint presentation in “handout” format, and give a paper copy to each person at the beginning of your talk.  As a bonus, you can also tell your audience where they can view or download it on the web.
  3. Cull out all but five or six slides for each hour of your planned presentation.  These should only include graphics that must be seen to be believed, and text that is more effective when read silently than when spoken.  This severely pared-down version will be the PowerPoint document that you will actually use during your presentation.

I realize that this will probably not be welcome advice, but the interests of your organization will undoubtedly dictate that you deploy a PowerPoint strategy that will, at the very least, not alienate the audiences at your presentations.

If you have any lingering hopes that PowerPoint is the best tool for engaging stakeholders in your mission, my final advice to you to review the PowerPoint version of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

 




A note on the title of this article:

I wish I had invented this aphorism, but I didn’t.

In 1887, John Dalberg-Acton (1st Baron Acton) wrote, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

In 2003, Edward Tufte wrote “Power corrupts.  PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.

Chris Zibailo: A hero in ICT and expectation management

Chris Zibailo, DSCI

This morning, I ran into a long-lost colleague whom I remember as a hero.  Or rather, Chris Zibailo recognized my voice, and ran over to reintroduce himself to me this morning.

Chris and I met in 1999, when I was the information systems manager at Family Service of Greater Boston (FSGB).  FSGB was in the middle of a big geographic transition; we had sold our headquarters on Beacon Hill, and moved our information systems, plus everything else, to temporary quarters in Downtown Crossing. We were now facing, for the second time in just under a year, a move to our permanent headquarters in Jackson Square.

Fortunately, I was reporting to the world’s best chief administrative officer for a nonprofit human service organization, Bill Chrisemer.  I should take a moment and acknowledge Bill as a hero as well, because he always did his utmost to help me succeed in supporting FSGB.

It was the right time for Bill and me to think about state of the art voice and data lines.  Enter Chris, with a promise on behalf on his firm that got our attention:  we suck less.

Chris is my hero, because he delivered extraordinary service; he not only managed our expectations perfectly, but exceeded them.  We not only received the information and communication technology components that were critical for our operations, but all the personal care that Chris could give us in a difficult move.  I remember a particularly harrowing moment, while planning the weekend cut-over of all services for the entire organization, when we realized that someone had to be at our Quincy satellite office to wait for and let in the Bell Atlantic workers.  It was a thankless task and one that might have entailed hours of waiting around, and our information systems team had already been assigned critical tasks.  Just as I remember the harrowing moment of that realization, I also remember my overwhelming feeling of gratitude and relief when Chris volunteered for the job, which most definitely was not in the contract for services that we signed with him.  We gave him the keys, he did this tedious task, and all was well.

Later that year, Bill Chrisemer left, I was diagnosed with cancer (and had successful surgery), and DSCI underwent some significant changes. It was a very tough time, partly because Family Service of Greater Boston’s organizational culture had changed. In 2000, I left FSGB to take a job as TechFoundation’s national nonprofit liaison officer, and in 2002, I left TF to become a solo consultant.  I had lost touch with Chris, and heard a rumor that he had left his firm, but I still thought of him as the gold standard whenever I dealt with telephone and internet service providers on behalf of my clients.

Fast forward to this morning.  Imagine my delight when Chris caught up with me!  Delight was piled on delight when Chris told me that the acquisition of his firm, those many years ago, was not satisfactory, so he and his colleagues banded together to invest in DSCI and turn it into a hosted communication and connectivity service provider for the 21st century.

Kudos to you, Chris.  You’re still my hero.

“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.


 

What every nonprofit executive needs to know about information technology (Redux)

Smart Nonprofit Executive

This article is another in a series of republications of items from my now-defunct first blog.  I wrote this in 2004, as one of my first blog articles.  Reflecting on these ten items, I’d say that the underlying principles still hold true, although if I were writing if from scratch today, I’d include more examples and different examples.  I’d be less sure about the percentage break down of a typical nonprofit’s budget. I’d be more sanguine about donated services and hardware, in cases where a really well-planned and well-executed model was in place.The availability of cloud computing has probably made a couple of the bonus items obsolete, but it’s still important for a nonprofit CEO to know how to deal with the organization’s digital storehouse. 


29 Dec 2004 01:03 PM EDT

1.  Very little technical knowledge is required in order for nonprofit CEOs to participate actively in strategic IT planning.

As long as you thoroughly understand your organization’s overall mission, strategy, and tactics and (are willing to learn a little bit about the technology), you can keep your information technology infrastructure on target.

Example: Your mission is to save the whales (not to maintain a local area network)!  In order to save the whales, you need a strategy: to stay informed and inform others about the issues, lobby for policy changes, to issue action alerts, to raise money, and to maintain relationships with various legislators, constituents, communities, donors, potential friends, and allies. Keep pressing for tactics that will help you achieve your desired outcomes (saving whales); this will enable you to hold your own in most discussions with technical experts.

2. Your board of directors should be calling for and participating in your strategic information technology planning.

If they’re not, it’s time to recruit some board members who are techies. For example, your region probably has an internet service provider, a high-tech corporation, or a large retail firm with an extensive IT department. Perhaps you can recruit representatives from these organizations to serve on your board as part of their community benefits program.

3.  A tremendous number of high-quality resources for strategic IT planning are available to nonprofits at no charge.

Free advice, products, and services make it possible for nonprofits to lower the risk of trying new technology – but in the long run you’ll have to pay real money to have precisely the right tools for supporting your mission.

4.  You can keep an eye on innovations in IT, and think about possible uses for them in the nonprofit sector, even if you don’t have a technical background.

If you regularly read the technology columns of a good daily newspaper, and a few general interest magazines such as “PC Monthly,” “MAC User,” or “Network World,” you will soon catch on to the basic concepts and terminology.  (Don’t worry if it seems over your head at first – you’ll catch on! Everybody has to start somewhere.)

Example: You work for a nonprofit organization with five employees and four non-networked computers. It’s time to link them up so that you and your colleagues can share information and regularly back up your work. As you read articles on wireless networking, and look at the building where you work – which is a pre-electricity Victorian house only somewhat successfully retrofitted for its current functions – you see that you may actually save money by going wireless.

You ask your IT vendors for estimates on drilling and running cables through the building, and find that the cost of labor, support, upgrades, future expansion, and maintenance for a more conventional network will exceed that of a simple wireless network.

5.  Information technology, no matter how strategically you apply it, will probably never save your nonprofit organization any money.

It will, however, enable you to work more effectively. You will probably be able to do more work, of higher quality, with fewer person-hours. But don’t be surprised if this raises the bar of expectations on the part of the board, the community, the clients, the constituents, and the donors!

6.  You need an in-house IT committee.

Convene an Information Technology team or working group, within your nonprofit, and make sure that you meet regularly to give input to the senior management on strategic IT issues.

The team should include a cross-section of staff – administration and finance, programmatic, secretarial. Be sure to include staff members who are overtly or covertly technophobic; their concerns should be addressed.

7.  Secretaries and administrative assistants should be the lynchpins of your IT infrastructure. Budgeting for IT training for these employees can be one of your best investments.

Which staff members are more likely to be there when problems arise, to knowabout the technical abilities (and phobias) of their colleagues, and to know where the (paper or electronic) files are? Professional development that includes IT training is likely to increase job satisfaction and employee retention. Don’t forget to revise job descriptions and job titles as your secretaries and administrative assistants move into IT management responsibilities!

8.  In the long run, IT training and support (and other operating expenses) will make up about 70% of your IT budget.

The more obvious line items – such as hardware, software, and network services – will comprise about 30%. This is a highly counter-intuitive fact of nonprofit life. However, there is research on the “Total Cost of Ownership” that bears this out.

9.  Donated hardware, software, and services can cost a nonprofit more than purchased products or services in the long run.

The cost in person hours of using and maintaining non-standard or sub-standard configurations is astonishingly high, and donated equipment tends to be in non-standard or sub-standard. Likewise, donated services will cost you a great deal of time in support, supervision, and ongoing maintenance. Beware of the web site design services donated by a close relative of the chair of your board! You may end up with something that you don’t like, can’t use, or can’t easily change.

10. In a nonprofit organization, most strategic IT problems are actually organizational development problems.

Is it a CEO who is resistant to technical innovations? A board of directors that hesitates to make the commitment to raise the money need for the IT infrastructure? Line staff who are already stressed and overworked, and can’t stop to learn and implement new technologies? An inability to make outsourced IT consultants or in-house IT staff understand organizational processes? All the information technology in the world won’t resolve these issues, if you don’t address them at the organizational level.

Bonus items: Hands-on IT skills that the CEO, CFO, and COO of every small nonprofit ought to have:

  • How to compose, send, read, and delete email, using the organization’s standard application.
  • How to create and save a simple text document, using the organization’s standard application.
  • How to do the daily back up of the system.
  • How to bring down and bring up the network server.

Now that you’ve read what I formulated in 2004, I’d like to invite you to post comments about what you’d add, cut, or revise in this list of crucial knowledge for nonprofit executives.

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

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.

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 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?

 

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.

“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.

Let’s meet at the Nonprofit Technology Conference in April!

myNTC page 2013

I’m getting very excited about the Nonprofit Technology Conference in Minneapolis, MN in April!

For me, #13NTC will be all about dialogue.  I do attend sessions, but it’s not the most important item on my agenda.  If you want to have a conversation at the conference, then I want to have a conversation with you.

In some cases, folks at the conference would like to meet for pro bono consultation with me.  I’m delighted to be asked – as far as I’m concerned, any moment that I’m not otherwise engaged at the Nonprofit Technology Conference is a moment when I’m available to provide free help to nonprofit and philanthropic professionals.

Fortunately, NTEN has an online tool for scheduling meetings at the conference.  Please use it to set up a time with me!

Here’s how:

  1. If you have not already registered for the conference, you can do so right now.
  2. Once you’ve registered, go to my conference profile.
  3. Click on the “Request Meeting” icon.  (If you’re not sure which it is, see the orange arrow in the image above; it points to the icon.)
  4. Enter the date and location for the proposed meeting.
  5. Add a message that provides a little context. (E.g., who you are and whether there’s a specific topic you’d like to discuss.  If there isn’t a specific topic, that’s ok with me.)
  6. Click on the “Create” button.

It’s that easy!

See you in Minneapolis!

Nonprofit Tech Jobs

Nonprofit Tech Jobs

Since I run the Nonprofit Tech Jobs list (which also appears as a Twitter feed and a WordPress web site), I’m often asked about who in the nonprofit/philanthropic world is currently hiring.  Fortunately, I can direct those who ask to the list, since I publicly post every relevant job announcement I know about there.

However, there are some other good sources of news about nptech job openings, and as a public service, I’m happy to post links to them here:

Nonprofit technology job listings:

General job listings that sometimes include nonprofit technology jobs:

At various times, I’ve thought about shutting down the Nonprofit Tech Jobs list, because there are so many scattered announcements out there, and it’s really time consuming for one already-busy volunteer (yours truly) to keep up with it.  Thus far, I haven’t found a technical solution – something that will scrape the data and aggregate it into one easy RSS feed – but I’m still hoping.  Meanwhile, I post every nptech job announcement I can to the list.

#13NTC = The Nonprofit Technology Conference in Minneapolis

venn diagram #13ntc

Creative Commons License
This diagram is licensed by Deborah Elizabeth Finn under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

 

The main reason for attending NTEN’s Nonprofit Technology Conference can be illustrated with the Venn diagram shown above.  As you can see, the overlap between passionate computer geeks and passionate nonprofit/philanthropic professionals is very small.  But the folks in that green zone, it’s somewhat of a tribe, an ethnic group.  If you fall into that zone, then you simply need to be at the conference.  You need to be with your people.

I will of course be there, although my primary purpose will not be to attend the sessions.  My goal is to have as many conversations as possible with people who share my interests. Historically, it happens at NTC in hallways, in lounges, over dinner, and at gatherings that are not listed on the official schedule.  In the early years, the most exciting place for conversation was breakfast and lunch – however, to my ongoing sorrow, the conference organizers shifted to the principle that if you gather everyone in the tribe for a meal, the best thing that you can do for them is preclude conversation by bringing in a plenary speaker.  I love the NTEN staff very much, but on this point, I think that they are as wrong as they can be.  We just have to agree to disagree.

Therefore, I will be at NTC, available for conversations in hallways, in lounges, over dinner, and at unofficial events.  If you want to talk, let’s talk.  Send me an email, and let me know where and when.

NTEN's Nonprofit Technology Conference (#13ntc) in Minneapolis

See you at the Boston 501 Tech Club!

501 Tech Club

If you’re a nonprofit professional in Massachusetts with a strong interest in information and communication technologies, then please come to the next Boston 501 Tech Club event; it will be on January 30 at Space With A Soul.  The topic will be one that is very close to my hearttechnology planning.  It’s a free event, but you need to register for it.

I’m very proud of my history with the Boston 501 Tech Club (and also with the Rhode Island 501 Tech Club).  First time attenders are often pleasantly surprised by how warmly they are welcomed, and by how many solid professional relationships begin there.

If you’re a nonprofit professional in an area that doesn’t have a local 501 Tech Club, the good folks of NTEN will be happy to coach you about how to start one.

My current daydream: The marriage of outcomes management apps with data visualization apps

The marriage of outcomes management with data visualization

Given my current preoccupation with both outcomes management and data visualization for mission-based organizations, perhaps it’s not a surprise that I’m daydreaming about integrating applications that were designed for these two tasks.

This daydream was inspired by a recent conversation with Patrice Keegan, executive director of Boston Cares (a HandsOn Network affiliate).  She is keenly interested in both outcomes and data visualization, and she leads a nonprofit of modest size that collaborates not only with many local partners but also with a national network of sister organizations that facilitate short-term volunteering.  In other words, Boston Cares provides a gateway to volunteerism for individuals, corporations, and community-based nonprofits, and then shares best practices with its counterparts across the United States.

What better poster girl could there be than Patrice, for my Cause, which is making it not only possible but easy for her to take her outcomes analyses and turn them in visuals that tell the story of the social impact of Boston Cares?

Moreover, what good is a cause and a poster child, without a poster?  Here’s mine:

Patrice Keegan of Boston Cares
Special note to software developers in the nonprofit sector:  please take a look at that bright, shining face, and give your efforts to the cause.

What I love and hate about serving as a consultant

love hate

Talk about first world problems!  I love my clients as people. I love the projects. I love the missions.  I love working on strategyI love nonprofit technology.

In so many ways, my professional life is a dream.  But it can also be very sad, because I’m always worried about becoming the consultant’s version of the overly attached girlfriend.  I end up loving my clients so much that I don’t want to wrap up the project.

The truth is that I love being part of a team.  I love working with the same people over time, having an office that is somewhere other than my home, and having an organizational affiliation.  If someone hired me to be a full-time member of team, doing the work that I currently do, I’d be in heaven.  But it currently seems that being an independent consultant is my best option for doing what I love.

I’m not wrapping up any projects at the moment, but of course I’m wrapping up the year.  I want to pause and tell my past and current clients how much I love them. It really is a privilege to serve them.  In my mind, they’ll always be my clients, now matter how brief the project is or how long ago it was finished.  I also want to tell them that my separation anxiety is my problem, not theirs!

But most of all, I want to wish them a beautiful new 2013 – a year of peace, joy, prosperity, health, justice, and fulfillment of all their goals.

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.

“Please pose all questions in the form of a compliment”

please pose all questions in the form of a compliment

I have just had the amusing experience of reading an article in the Nonprofit Quarterly, entitled “Thanking Your Nonprofit Techie:  A Holiday Wishlist,” and finding that none of the gift suggestions listed there appealed to me very much.

If I were in the market to brighten the life of a nonprofit organization’s nptech professional, I definitely would not toss a E-Waste CD Clock from Hipcycle into the shopping cart.  No.  The really satisfying gift might be an intangible.  For example, a realistic line item for information and communication technology in the organization’s annual budget, or a substantial shift in organizational culture toward including ICT staff in the crucial conversations where strategic decisions are made.  No elaborate announcement or ritual would be needed; just do it.

But if I were in the market for an object that I could wrap up and present to a loyal, resourceful, hard-working, knowledgeable, dedicated nonprofit techie, it would be the desk plaque that says, “Please pose all questions in the form of a compliment.”  Or if you’d rather not spend $10.00 on a purchase, just promulgate it as an official staff policy.

Regardless of whether you mark the holidays with a gift to the nptech professionals in your organization’s life, and regardless what you might choose to give, I wish one and all a very happy holiday, and a joyous new year!

Measuring what we value, and presenting the findings more interactively than ever

Boston Indicators Project logo

First of all, a personal resolutionI will not whine.

The Boston Indicators Project, which is an initiative by the Boston Foundation and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, relaunched its web site in November, and I was not invited to the event.  I will subdue my inclination to pout, and move on to praising the new web site.

Fortunately, a fellow Boston Technobabe, Kat Friedrich, did attend; you therefore have the option of skipping my blog article and going straight to hers.  Kat’s focus is on “How Nonprofits Can Earn News Coverage Using Data Visualization,” which is certainly a great take-away for mission-based organizations.

My interest is slightly different.  Here are a few things that are especially striking:

The new Boston Indicators web site is great example of nonprofit technology in the service of a mission that is much greater any one community foundation or specific region.  I happen to live in the greater Boston area, so I’ve been more easily drawn to it than I would be if I were living elsewhere.  But it’s an example to any individual or organization, of the power of the universal access to the significant data, and the importance of analyzing it in ways that benefit the community.

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:

Outputs, outcomes – what’s the difference for nonprofits?

These days, I deal with a lot of people in the nonprofit/philanthropic sector for whom the topic of programmatic outcomes is fraught with anxiety.

It’s always unnerving when I discover that they equate outcomes with what they do (i.e., outputs), rather than with the change that occurs as a result of what they do (i.e., outcomes).  In other words, there a lot of nonprofit and philanthropic professionals who are not only anxious about programmatic outcomes, but who are confused about the exact nature of what they are tracking.

Fortunately, help is at hand.  A while back, while I was working on a nonprofit management information project with Third Sector New England, we shot a short video, in which Deborah Linnell (then with TSNE, now with the van Beuren Charitable Foundation) explained about outputs, outcomes, and logic models.

This video is not only brief but clear.  I recommend it to anyone who is working in a mission-based organization, and urge you to replay it on a regular basis, lest confusion set in again.  It’s worth the time, effort, and bandwidth to stay clear on this important distinction.

The agony of choice

I recently had both the pleasure and the pain of sitting in with a much-loved nonprofit, as its staff members interviewed several nonprofit technology assistance firms regarding a contract for services.  It was certainly a pleasure to find that my esteemed client organization had more than a few really strong options.

Here are a few thoughts that I took away from that series of interviews:

  • Local is good.  The client organization is all about social responsibility, and it would be good to know that the dollars that they spend on this contract – which is pretty big, by their standards – will go back into the local economy.  On the other hand, there’s always the risk that a great local business can be bought and swallowed up by a faceless mega-corporation.
  • Small is good.  I’d feel much better knowing that the staff of my client organization will be talking to the same small group of specialists at the NTAP’s help desk over time.  It’s not just about the relationships, but also about the intimate knowledge of the client’s infrastructure that the technology assistance firm’s team has in their heads when the phone rings.  A small firm with low turnover can offer that.  On the other hand, there’s always the risk that the small firm will be bought out by a much larger, much more impersonal one.
  • The “soft” stuff is good.  It’s not just about technical prowess.  A good personality, an ability to build relationships, and an eagerness to communicate are all crucial in a technology firm that will be successful in serving my client.
  • Strategic is good.  This wonderful nonprofit really needs it’s nonprofit technology vendors to help it stay aware of important new opportunities and challenges, and to think ahead about the best way to support the mission.  I don’t mean up-selling; I mean actively working in the interests of the client.

(God knows that as a consultant I try to embody these positive qualities myself. If you want to know whether I’m succeeding, don’t ask me.  Ask my clients, or if you are one my clients, please feel free to tell me how I can improve.)

For the client in question, it’s not a matter of desperation stemming from scarcity of available services, but a tough choice.  No matter which firm the nonprofit organization chooses, it will involve risk, and they’ll never know for sure whether they would have been much happier with another choice.

Given the difficulties, the good news is that with the strong options before them, it’s extremely unlikely that they’ll make a disastrous choice.  But that also means that some extremely nice and extremely well-qualified people will be disappointed, because they are all really eager to get the contract, and only one will be selected.  That really hurts.

Fortunately, I’m in a good position as a yenta to nonprofits and foundations; as I learn more about each of these technology support firms, I will keep them in mind, and recommend them when I am asked for referrals.  In the best of all possible worlds, both the beloved clients and the esteemed vendors find the perfect matches; since we haven’t quite arrived there yet, people like me should do our best to help the process whenever we can.

Should a nonprofit use a free email service? Gavin Murphy of Annkissam knows.

"askDeborah" podcast, NTEN:Change journal, December 2012


NTEN: Change
is a quarterly journal for nonprofit executives, and I’m pleased to say that the “askDeborah” podcast is one of its regular features.  The journal is available by subscription only but is free to all.

The December edition of NTEN: Change is out, and the podcast for this issue features a conversation about email for nonprofits.  The guest expert is Gavin Murphy of Annkissam; he and I ponder a question posed by a nonprofit professional who is wondering whether to go with a free email service (such as Gmail or Hotmail), or to allocate money to pay for what the organization needs.

It’s not a simple yes or no answer, although an organization with serious needs for maintaining security and privacy in email communication is probably better off looking for something more than a free service can offer.

Gavin explains this is a very reassuring, accessible way.  The whole point of the “askDeborah” podcast series  – as well as the point of the NTEN: Change journal – is to address these concerns for busy people whose expertise lies in other areas of nonprofit management.

Heartfelt thanks are due all around:  to Gavin, for offering his expertise; to NTEN, for publishing the segment in the quarterly journal; and to Community TechKnowledge, for underwriting the podcast series as part of its educational initiative.

How grantmakers and how nonprofits use information about outcomes

State of Evaluation 2012: Evaluation Practice and Capacity in the Nonprofit Sector, a report by the Innovation Network

I’m sitting here, reflecting on the Innovation Network’s “State of Evaluation 2012” report.

I encourage you to download it and read it for yourself; start with pages 14 and 15. These two pages display infographics that summarize what funders (also known as “grantors,” or if you’re Bob Penna, as “investors”) and nonprofits (also known as “grantees”) are reporting about why they do evaluation and what they are evaluating.

Regardless of whether you call it evaluation, impact assessment, outcomes management, performance measurement, or research – it’s really, really difficult to ascertain whether a mission-based organization is delivering the specific, positive, and sustainable change that it promises to its stakeholders. Many organizations do an excellent job at tracking outputs, but falter when it comes to managing outcomes. That’s in part because proving a causal relationship between what the nonprofit does and the specific goals that it promises to achieve is very costly in time, effort, expertise, and money.

But assuming that a mission-based organization is doing a rigorous evaluation, we still need to ask:  what is done with the findings, once the analysis is complete?

What the aforementioned infographics from the “State of Evalution 2012”  tell me is that both grantors and grantees typically say that the most important thing they can do with their outcome findings is to report them to their respective boards of directors.  Considering the depth of the moral and legal responsibility that is vested in board members, this is a pretty decent priority.  But it’s unclear to me what those boards actually do with the information.  Do they use it to guide the policies and operations of their respective organizations?  If so, does anything change for the better?

If you have an answer to the question of how boards use this information that is based on firsthand experience, then please feel to post a comment here.

Farewell to Holly Ross – NTEN’s loss is the Drupal Association’s gain

Holly Ross in 2008 as the new executive director of NTEN

Holly Ross as NTEN’s new E.D. in 2008.

It’s official.  Holly Ross, the executive director of our professional association, the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), is leaving to become the E.D. of the Drupal Association.

I know that she won’t disappear from our sight, but just the same, I will miss her in her NTEN role.  A lot.  It’s not just that she’s smart, collaborative, creative, ethical, well-informed, and committed to making the world a better place.  It’s that she is the only person I know who can actually quiet a ballroom full of thousands of conference attendees in order to make some mundane housekeeping announcements.  She is that compelling, that likable as a leader.

I first met Holly in 2001, at the Circuit Rider Roundup in Denver, CO.  The circuit rider movement was the precursor to NTEN, and the roundup was the precursor to the huge annual conference that NTEN now coordinates.  Holly was then working for (the now-defunct) TechRocks.  I was a second or third wave circuit rider, attending a roundup for the first time.  There was definitely an inner circle of cool kids, and the TechRocks team was part of it.  Holly was one of them, and she was also a friendly face to newcomers.  Later on, she made the transition to the newly-formed NTEN staff, and in 2008, she became the E.D.

Through the years, I’ve had plenty opportunities to collaborate with Holly to advance the field of nonprofit technology, in order to serve the organizations that are fulfilling important social missions.  No one who knows me will be at all surprised if I point out that this “collaboration” has often consisted of Holly listening while I explained to her why NTEN was doing something wrong and what NTEN should do instead!  Likewise, no one who knows Holly will be surprised to learn that she has in turn always been gracious, responsive, and helpful.  Good heavens, she has even thanked me for my guidance and feedback!  And then she has gone on lead NTEN brilliantly, regardless of whether my suggestions turned out to be worth the time it took to listen to them.   I don’t know how many other longtime NTEN supporters would say the same, but I suspect that the overwhelming majority would.

Happy trails to Holly!  I wish her the best, and I hope that we’ll be seeing her at NTEN conferences in the future as a relaxed attendee who is not responsible for running the show, but who is allowed to enjoy the fruits of a profession and a movement that she was so crucial in creating.

What if we had a pro bono training on outcomes measurement for nonprofit professionals in Massachusetts?

question mark

As you can probably guess, I spend a lot of time these days worrying about outcomes measurement for nonprofits; I also devote time to discussing this topic with experts and with nonprofit professionals.

As I talk to some of the most impressive mavens in this field I  sometimes ask, “would you travel to Massachusetts at your own expense, to give a free day-long training on outcomes measurement to nonprofit professionals here?

Nothing ventured, nothing gained – am I right?  (Or as my dear sister once put it, I am The Mouth That Knows No Fear.)

A few really stellar experts actually agreed to do it, if a training event could be arranged to suit their schedules and other reasonable needs.  Of course, I am stunned, overwhelmed with gratitude.  Never underestimate the kindness of mavens!

So now I turn to my nonprofit colleagues in Massachusetts, with another unscientific survey.  I want to get a sense of who would be interested in day-long free training.  This survey is for them.  If you’re not a nonprofit professional based in Massachusetts, please do the honorable thing, and refrain from participating in this survey.

Outcomes measurement for nonprofits: Who does the analysis?

I invite you to participate in this survey, bearing in mind that it is for recreational purposes, and has no scientific value:

There are many reasons that this survey is of dubious value, for example:

  • No pilot testing has been done to ensure that the choices offered are both exhaustive and mutually exclusive.

The list could go on, but I’ll leave it at that.  Although most of my training is in qualitative social research, I have taken undergraduate and graduate level courses on quantitative research, and the points I made about what’s wrong with my survey are what I could pull out of memory without consulting a standard text on statistics.

In other words, when it comes to quantitative analysis, I know just enough to be dangerous.

Meanwhile, I worry about nonprofit organizations that are under pressure to collect, analyze, and report data on the outcomes of their programs.  There are a lot of fantastic executive directors, program managers, and database administrators out there – but it’s very rare for a nonprofit professional who falls into any of those three categories to also have solid skills in quantitative analysis and social research methods.  Nevertheless, I know of plenty of nonprofit organizations where programmatic outcomes measurement is done by an executive director, program manager, or database administrator whose skill set is very different from what the task demands.  In many cases, even if they come up with a report, the nonprofit staff members may not even be aware that what have done is presented a lot of data, without actually showing that there is any causal relationship between the organization’s activities and the social good that they are in business to deliver.

Let’s not be too hasty in deprecating the efforts of these nonprofit professionals.  They are under a lot of pressure, especially from grantmaking foundations, to report on programmatic outcomes.  In many cases, they do the best they can to respond, even if they have neither the internal capacity to meet the task nor the money to hire a professional evaluator.

By the way, I was delighted to attend gathering this fall, in which I heard a highly-regarded philanthropic professional ask a room full of foundation officers, “are you requiring $50,000 worth of outcomes measurement for a $10,000 grant?” It’s not the only question we need to ask, but it’s an extremely cogent one!

I’d love to see nonprofit professionals, philanthropists, and experts in quantitative analysis work together to address this challenge.

We should also be learning lessons from the online tools that have already been developed to match skilled individuals with nonprofit professionals who need help and advice from experts.  Examples of such tools include the “Research Matchmaker,” and NPO Connect.

We can do better.  It’s going to take time, effort, money, creativity, and collaboration – but we can do better.

Nonprofits, vendors, and the RFP process

I’m not really enthusiastic about the “Request For Proposals” (RFP) model of identifying the right vendor for the job.  However, there are times when a much-loved nonprofit client really needs to go through the process, and in that case, I want to be there for the staff – as the designated worrier, the framer of requirements, the fierce defender of the organization’s interests.

That’s my role right now, with a highly esteemed client that needs a service provider.  Of the firms that I contacted in order to solicit proposals, three are led (or even owned outright) by valued friends of mine.  It’s a great exercise in professional ethics and appropriate boundaries!

Moreover, it can be painful to go to a friend and ask him/her to invest a significant amount of time – on spec – in jumping through hoops and preparing a document.  A difficult twist is that I’ve never been hired as a consultant through an RFP process.  In general, my clients simply decide that they need me.

I’m pleased to say that in the current RFP process, my client received some very strong proposals; none of my friends who submitted proposals did a perfunctory or substandard job.  However, we did get our share of the perfunctory and the substandard.

Here are a few tips for vendors, from someone who writes RFPs, solicits responses, and evaluates proposals on behalf of nonprofit clients:

  • Every item mentioned in the RFP is there for a reason.  Please respond to each, if only to say that you can’t offer what is requested in the form that the client organization wants it.
  • Someone like me will have to comb through every piece of information requested (e.g., services required, client concerns, references) and create an item-by-item, side-by-side comparison of each proposal.  Please make it easy for me or my counterpart, by including a spreadsheet that lists every item with your direct response to it, in the order each item is mentioned in the RFP.
  • If you simply must describe what your are offering with terms and categories that are utterly different from the ones used in the RFP, please provide annotations or diagrams that help us map your concepts to what we need.
  • Sometimes, “no” and “we need more information” are reasonable responses to an item listed in an RFP.  At the moment, I’m looking at a spreadsheet comparing the responses in seven proposals, and it’s littered with notes such as “not explicitly addressed,” “listed in proposal, but no details provided,” and “to be determined.” Please be clear and candid.

And here are a couple of questions for vendors who submit proposals:

  • Do you really want the person who is best acquainted with your proposal to be annoyed with you, when he/she meets with the decision-makers at the client organizations to brief them on the comparative merits of the candidates?
  • Would you rather have the chief decision-maker to call you up to say, “we’re seriously considering your proposal – when can we meet to discuss it?” or “we’ve read your proposal, but can’t figure out whether you can address our needs”?

I hope that vendors will think seriously about these questions, and base their future behavior on the answers.

The state of nonprofit data: Uh-oh!

The Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) has released a report prepared by Idealware on the current state of nonprofit data.  Highly recommended!

Some of the news it contains is scary.  In our sector, we currently aren’t very successful at collecting and analyzing the most crucial data.  For example, only 50% of the respondents reported that their nonprofit organizations are tracking data about the outcomes of clients/constituents.

According to the survey respondents, there are daunting barriers to tracking and using data:

  • issues related to collecting and working with data (27 percent of responses).
  • lack of expertise (24 percent of responses)
  • issues of time and prioritization (22 percent of responses).
  • challenges with technology (23 percent).

Page 13 of the report features a chart that I find especially worrisome.  It displays of types of data that nonprofit organizations should or could be using, with large chunks falling into three chilling categories:

  • we don’t know how to track this
  • we don’t have the technology to effectively track this
  • we don’t have the time/money to effectively track this

In the case of data about outcomes, 17% lack the knowledge, 20% lack the technology, and 22% lack the time or money (or both) to track it.

Are you scared yet?  I confess that I am.  Perhaps half of all nonprofits surveyed don’t know – and don’t have the resources to find out – whether there is any causal relationship between what their activities and the social good that they are in business to achieve.

And that’s just programmatic outcomes.  The news is also not very encouraging when it comes to capturing data about organizational budgets, constituent participation in programs, and external trends in the issue areas being addressed by nonprofit organizations.

So much for the bad news.  The good news is that now we know.

It takes some courage to acknowledge that the baseline is so low.  I applaud Idealware and NTEN for creating and publishing this report.  Now that we know, we can address the problem and take effective action.

Reconstructing my list of links

On my old Blogware site (1), I maintained an extensive list of online resources that would be of general interest to nonprofit professionals, and of especial interest to those who sought to use information and communication technology to support their missions.

I’ve devoted part of today to reconstructing that list of links, so that I can post it to this WordPress web site.  None of the available widgets seem to be set up to format my list the way I want it (2), so I have given up on the idea of displaying the list in the navigation column on the side, and created a special page on this site that lists “Recommended Readings and Resources.”

This new version of my link list is still quite rudimentary; I plan to add more items and arrange the list in a format that is easy to use.  Your suggestions of readings and resources that ought to be included will be very welcome.

1)  Which the host discontinued without notifying me in advance.  Not that I am bitter.

2)  Not that I am bitter.

Editor’s note:  Is there an echo in here?

A word of gratitude for an online community: Mission-Based Massachusetts

Map of Massachusetts

Today is Thanksgiving, so I want to express some gratitude to a community of colleagues here in Massachusetts.

I started the “Mission-Based Massachusetts” (MBM for short) email list in 2005, in order to provide a forum for people who care about nonprofit, philanthropic, educational, community-based, grassroots, socially responsible, and other mission-oriented organizations here in the Bay State.

My inspiration for starting the MBM list (and several other projects) was a series of conversations with Tim Gassert of the Boston Foundation, starting in about 2003.  We agreed that nonprofits in Massachusetts needed some sort of online tool that would help them stay current with each other about upcoming events, best practices, and available resources.  At the time, I hoped that a highly reputable institution, such as TBF or Third Sector New England, would take on the task, but neither was able to espouse the cause.  (Later, when the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network was organized, I hoped that MNN would sponsor it, but had no luck there either.)

It didn’t seem to me that an individual should take on such a critical task, but in 2005, I hunkered down to the task of creating, moderating, recruiting members for, and maintaining the MBM list as a lone volunteer.  Fortunately, my friend John McNutt (then living in Massachusetts, but now teaching at the University of Delaware) kindly volunteered to be the alternate moderator, thus allowing me to take some urgently needed breaks.

I’m deeply grateful for the way that MBM members have coalesced into a peer network, a group of people who are helping each other make the world a better place.  People constantly tell me in person or email me how much they have benefited from participating in this community.  They thank me, but the truth is that it weren’t for each of them, the Mission-Based Massachusetts group would not be thriving in this way. I also believe that as a community, they have greatly benefited the nonprofit sector in Massachusetts, and the many people served by the sector.

It takes a lot of effort to maintain the MBM list, but I’m not really a lone individual anymore.  In addition to John (to whom I’m deeply grateful), and Tim (who continues to inspire me) I have more than 1,400 colleagues in group who are helping me and each other.  It is indeed an occasion for gratitude!

Common Impact, Hands On Tech Boston, and volunteer management

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of meeting with some colleagues at Common Impact and Hands On Tech Boston.

We talked about a number of subjects (and a few ways that I might be able to be helpful to them), but it seems to me that a really important theme of our conversations was about volunteer management. It’s a complex challenge that requires finely honed skills, plenty of experience, solid relationships, and a good head for strategy.

Of course, this is ever so much more so the case when a nonprofit is relying on volunteers to do a mission-critical technology implementation.  I definitely have moments when I agree with the Nonprofit Curmudgeon that when it comes to nonprofit technology,  “volunteerism is great but it ain’t the long term solution.”   However, Common Impact provides a superlative model for skills-based corporate volunteering, and it works for technology implementations.

However, Common Impact can only work directly with a limited number of nonprofits.  Fortunately, they are now making available online a “Readiness Roadmap” that will help organizations do the self-assessment and active preparation for a skills-based volunteer project.  Actually, I suspect that using this tool will help any nonprofit that is seriously contemplating a major technology implementation, regardless of whether volunteers are part of the plan.

Pro bono strategic technology consultations for human service professionals

The Massachusetts Council of Human Service Providers37th conference and expo will take place on November 28th at the Copley Place Marriott in Boston.  Thanks to generous underwriting from Annkissam, I will be offering pro bono strategic technology consultations on-site at the conference to conference registrants!

If you have registered for the conference, you can sign up online right now for a 30 minute consultation.

These consultations will be provided  to conference attendees on the following basis:

  • No charge
  • No sales pitches
  • No further obligation on your part

Nonprofit Technology 101: A case study

This fall, I made presentation about nonprofit technology at a local university.  The 200 students in the course were master’s degree candidates in the school of computer and information science.  Since very few of them were familiar with the operations of small nonprofit organizations, I prepared this hypothetical scenario.

The situation:

Chris is the systems manager (SM) for Helping Out, a nonprofit organization with ten employees and a budget of $500,000 a year. Helping Out’s mission is to serve anyone in need of aid following a major natural disaster that occurred last year in a metropolitan area; they seek to offer counseling, food pantries, housing assistance, and economic development. Chris works half time for Helping Out for a salary of $25,000 a year, and has an annual information systems budget of $15,000. The latter amount covers hardware, software, internet access, and consulting services.

Helping Out currently has three PCs and two Macs, all of which are over three years old. Two of the PCs and one of the Macs are hooked up to a local area network and have internet access, which Chris manages. (The other PC and Mac are over five years old and are not compatible with the LAN’s operating system.)

They currently track their interactions with stakeholders (such as clients, local community groups, concerned citizens, and elected officials) with index cards. Donors are tracked on an Access database that Chris put together. Finances are tracked on Quickbooks.

In addition to maintaining the desktop systems, the local area network, the Access database, and Quickbooks, Chris is responsible for updating the organization’s web site, its Twitter account, and its Facebook page, on the grounds that “Chris knows about computers.” Likewise, Chris is responsible for creating financial reports for the board and auditors with data received from the chief financial officer (CFO), because “Chris knows about Excel.”

The chief executive officer (CEO) recently read a blog article about the importance of constituent relationship management (CRM), and is particularly excited to learn that Salesforce.Com (a software as a service application) is being used widely by nonprofit organizations. The article explains that the Salesforce Foundation will grant free licenses to nonprofits on request and also urges the desirability of integrating constituent tracking with financial records.

Meanwhile, Community Philanthropy, a local grantmaking organization that donates about $200,000 a year to Helping Out, has urged the CEO and CDO (the chief development officer, who is a fundraiser) to start reporting back on their programmatic outcomes. Community Philanthropy is interested in knowing the demographic profiles of the populations that Helping Out is serving, and in knowing how many dollars and how many person-hours it takes to meet the organization’s goals in delivering counseling, food pantries, housing assistance, and economic development services.

The CEO calls a meeting with the SM, the CFO, and the CDO, and asks Chris implement Salesforce as a CRM that will integrate with Quickbooks. The goal is to support better case management, outcomes reporting, financial management, and fundraising.

Chris agrees that the right platforms – correctly implemented, well integrated with each other, and properly maintained – will significantly improve operations and support the organization’s goals. However, Chris also has some serious concerns:

  • Chris is a systems administrator, not a programmer, and would need a significant course of training to be able to implement this project adequately.
  • This project will extremely time-consuming, and Chris will either need to drop some responsibilities or be paid for more hours.
  • The alternative would be to retain an outside consultant to do the implementation, and such consultants are not only scarce but expensive.
  • Chris knows, from speaking with other nonprofit technology professionals, that some similar organizations that attempted this implementation consider it an expensive failure. Often the reasons given for considering the project a failure are as superficial as finding that employees intensely disliked the user interface.

The question:

How should Chris respond – in this meeting, and thereafter – to this challenge?

What are you own thoughts about this case study?  How, indeed, should the organization’s systems manager respond?

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