Tag Archives: operations

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:

 

 

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.

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?

 

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.

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