Tag Archives: transparency

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“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.

 

“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.

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.

%d bloggers like this: