Here are a few lessons I’ve learned, in no particular order:
You need to make sure that your mission, operations, and desired outcomes are aligned with each other.
Movements for equity, inclusion, and belonging have the potential to revolutionize both mission-based organizations and philanthropy.
Carefully tailored one-to-one desk-side coaching usually increases a worker’s effectiveness much more quickly than classroom training.
The nonprofit/philanthropic sector in Massachusetts is different from the analogous sector in any other state in the U.S.A.
Poverty is an insufficient reward for devoting one’s professional life to a nonprofit organization.
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.
Age discrimination is alive and well in mission-based organizations.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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:
When have I enjoyed giving a presentation based on PowerPoint?
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:
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.
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.
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.
I’ve been looking for an impetus to do this, and now I have one!
A couple of projects for clients have been postponed, and lest there be time on my hands in March, I’m offering a limited number of consultations at $75/hour to nonprofits in the Boston area. My standard hourly rate is $200.00, so this represents a substantial discount.
Your organization might qualify for this bargain, if:
Let’s say that you belong to a neighborhood group that wants to turn a vacant lot into a community garden. This is an unincorporated community group with no employees or funding. You need a lot of information and resources from different knowledge bases:
Are there already groups within a ten mile radius that have experience in creating community gardens?·
Are there established organizations that are looking for neighborhood-based partners?
Would it be advisable to incorporate as a nonprofit?
Would it be advisable to seek a fiscal sponsor, and how would we find one?
Is there an individual or organization within a five mile radius that would let us use their rototiller twice a year?
Is there a hardware store within a five mile radius that will donate wheelbarrows and seeds to community gardens?
Is there an urban entrepreneurship program in our town that will help us sell produce from the garden?
Is there an expert in biohazards who will help us certify that this vacant lot, which used to be an industrial site where toxic chemicals were processed, has been converted from brown space to green space?
Is there a squad of volunteers who will help us weed the garden once a week during the growing season?
Social Actions. For search and aggregation by issue of a range of opportunities to take effective action – including jobs, volunteering, petitions, micro-loans, and donations.
Great Nonprofits. For help in deciding which organizations are most likely to use resources well and to be good strategic partners.
Capaciteria. For help in deciding which consultants and service providers are most likely to help organizations achieve their goals.
InterEthos. For help in obtaining anonymized data sets from other nonprofit programs, in order to establish baselines and formulate appropriate goals.
Open Indicators Consortium. For WEAVE, the free data visualization platform , which will help nonprofits, philanthropies, and their many stakeholders understand community trends before creating action plans and setting goals.
Pledgebank. For gathering commitments to take an action or give a donation, on the condition that others make complementary commitments to the project.
Some tools are more local. Since I’m in Massachusetts, it’s easy for me to point to some great examples from the Bay State:
MetroBoston Data Common. For help in obtaining data from regional planners, in order to understand the needs of the communities to be served.
In the best of all possible worlds, we will need to mash-up this information – not just in terms of mapping where the resources are, and not just in terms of mapping where the unmet needs are, but in providing some sort of tool that will help individuals and organizations capture various kinds of information and put it to use in fulfilling a mission.
It would be highly desirable for your community garden group to be able to use a single login for all of the online tools that might supply information to answer your questions, so that you can put the pieces of the puzzle together and save the results of your searches. What I envision is that you would have something like an online project worksheet, in which you created a wish list of components needed for success in your initiative, and then filled in the blanks. This worksheet would be password protected, and you would be able to invite potential donors and partners to view it and to offer assets, expertise, capacities, or other resources to help make the vision a reality.
The power of bringing all of this together through an online suite of tools is especially clear in these tough economic times: the tools are out there, the impact of each would be multiplied by making available through a project worksheet, and it looks very likely that scarcity of funding can be overcome by clever use of currently under-used information and resources.