From Big ideas

Renaming board committees

“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.”

The theme of the November Nonprofit Blog Carnival is abundance. Oranges

Moving from scarcity to abundance means we need to reframe how we see and think about our communities.

I worked at City Year many years ago. City Year’s founders embodied the abundance mindset. To instill that point of view in others, they skillfully deployed two powerful motivators: story and symbolism.

At City Year, what things were named really mattered – from programs to positions. And each implied a story.

For example, the middle school program that our corps members ran back then could have been called the “middle school afterschool program.” Or City Year’s middle school program.

Instead, it was called Young Heroes.

See the difference? If you were a tween or a potential sponsor, wouldn’t you consider signing up?

Recently I was working on the agenda for a board retreat designed to roll out the newly approved strategic plan. The CEO was eager to redo the committees during the retreat.

As we talked about how to do this, a light bulb went off in my head.

What if we gave our board committees new names. Names that captured the essence of the strategic plan goals.

Here’s what we came up with:

Renaming graphic.pdf - Adobe Reader 11282015 40209 PM

At first skeptical, board members soon warmed to the idea of new board committee names.

Why not. The particularly problematic Fundraising Committee lacked for members – fear of asking for money kept people away.

More folks could envision themselves serving on the “Inspiring our Community” Committee. They could see the work differently. They could even feel they could invite others to join.

With more volunteers, more focus on what they could do, they were inspired to reach out. An abundance mindset.

I’ll let you know how it goes. But from now on, I’m definitely recommending name changes.

P.S. If you’ve developed more engaging board committee names, please send them along. I know we are all interested in how this may have influenced their work.

Note: The quote which begins this post is usually attributed to Confucius. The actual saying by Confucius may be “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things.” (Zi Lu, 3)


Five Questions for strategic thinkers

The Fiver Most Important Questions You Every Will Ask“You’re a strategic planning consultant? You must use Drucker’s Five Most Important Questions a lot.”

Sinking feeling. As I stood by the grill with a beer in my hand at a recent summer party, I couldn’t come up with even one of his apparently essential strategic questions

I mentioned some of the business thinkers we often draw on, like Jim Collins and Peter Block. My new friend nodded politely, but I was clearly speaking to a Drucker man. He told me how Drucker’s business frameworks had guided his successful career as a manager. How they were now helping him transform the effectiveness of the nonprofit board he served on.

I was eager to learn more when I got back to the office. Amazon is taking its sweet time delivering Drucker’s book, but in the meantime here are Drucker’s Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask Your Nonprofit Organization:

What is your mission?
Who is your customer?
What does your customer value?
What are your results?
What is your plan?

These are all questions we ask and answer in the course of strategic planning with our clients, although not in Drucker’s specific terms.

For instance, the word “customer” was once a refreshing shock to nonprofit sensibilities, a challenge to those who automatically disdained commerce and marketing. Later on, calling donors and clients “customers” became a cliché. When a useful term becomes a buzzword, it shuts down the good thinking it once may have stimulated.

But it’s been a while since Drucker’s heyday and “customer” seems to have dropped out of frequent use in the nonprofit world. So, maybe it’s time to bring the “customer” back into our strategic discussions.

In any case, I’m glad to be challenged to learn more about the amazing Peter Drucker and I’m looking forward to learning more about his Five Questions.

A grant seeker’s wish list

Boneyard StarsI prepared this grant seeker’s wish list for a foundation that had recently spun off from its corporate parent.

What is it that nonprofits want or need from grant makers?

At the very top, I put:

 # 1: Flexible, unrestricted operating funds.

According to the most recent data from The Foundation Center, only 23% of foundation grants go to general support.

 #2: Long-term donor investment

Every organization has to re-raise every dollar it receives each year. Having a reliable source of funding can improve stability and planning (though for some nonprofits, it can make them very lazy).

 #3: Other wants/needs

  • Larger donations that make a significant difference.
  • Gifts that deliver a high return on investment in time and direct costs.
  • Response to rapid change or emergency community needs.
  • Leadership development: A mismatch between organization needs and its people can sink an organization. Sometimes, changes need to be made. Other times, investment in leadership development can make a different. Areas for investment on my list include self-knowledge, managerial and leadership skills,  technical expertise in administration, human resources, fund development, program development, etc. (This is an investment in the whole sector as leaders switch organizations).

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“A Radical Revolution of Values”

mlk-card“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.

“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring”.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., from “Beyond Vietnam” Riverside Church April 4, 1967.

I’d like to recognize all of our clients for their service, remembering that “everyone can be great because everyone can serve.”

On this holiday, I’m also sending a very special note of gratitude to our clients, past and present, who work tirelessly to end or reduce poverty, homelessness, war, injustice.



Saving civilization – are you a Roman or a saint?

Thomas Cahill’s marvelously humane history How the Irish Saved Civilization tells how a handful of inspired monks isolated at the far edge of a crumbling empire first preserved and then replanted the most precious seeds of ancient civilization – the ideas and knowledge contained in its greatest Hebrew, Greek, Roman and early Christian books.

How Irish Saved CivilizationCahill’s concluding chapter reminds us that we cannot know the hour of our own civilization’s great catastrophe, but that we are more like the late Romans than we want to consider: technologically advanced, but living on the fruits of accelerating injustice, violence and corruption that leave more and more billions of people envious and destitute. Cahill foresees an inevitable crisis. “But we turn our back on such unpleasantness,” writes Cahill (in 1995), “and contemplate the happier prospects of our technological dreams.”

“What will be lost, and what saved, of our civilization probably lies beyond our powers to decide”, Cahill concludes. “No human group has ever figured out how to design its future. That future may be germinating today not in a boardroom in London or an office in Washington or a bank in Tokyo, but in some antic outpost or other – a kindly British orphanage in the grim foothills of Peru, a house for the dying run by a fiercely single-minded Albanian nun, and easygoing French medical team at the starving edge of the Sahel, a mission to Somalia by Irish social workers who remember their own Great Hunger, a nursery program to assist convict-mothers at a New York prison – in some unheralded corner where a great-hearted human being is committed to loving outcasts in an extraordinary way.” 

“Perhaps history is always divided into Romans and Catholics – or better catholics. The Romans are the  rich and powerful who run things their way and must always accrue more because they instinctively believe there will never be enough to go around; the catholics, as their implies, are universalists who instinctively believe that all humanity makes one family, that every human being is an equal child of God and that God will provide… If our civilization is to be saved… if we are to be saved, it will not be by Romans but by saints.”

I know I’m too much a Roman, too little a saint. Still it’s been my privilege to work with a few saints among my colleagues and clients during a career in philanthropy. Cahill reminds us that their dissent from selfishness is not eccentric or futile but essential to our fate. Thank you.



A salute to the US National Park Service

From the mission statement

Crazy Jug Point at Grand Canyon National Park North Rim

“The National Park Service cares for special places saved by the American people so that all may experience our heritage.”

On our recent vacation, we had the great fortune to experience some incredible natural and cultural sites of the US National Park Service, among them:

Thank you to the past Congresses and Presidents who had the foresight and wisdom to preserve and maintain these extraordinary places for future generations.

And thank you, National Park Service, for your graciousness and welcoming presence. We were happy to see our tax dollars working for the enjoyment of so many people, from all around the world.

Rethinking the finance committee

But what if instead of these solely fiduciary roles, the Finance Committee also facilitated strategic thinking within the Board about the short and long-term financial condition of the organization by: developing a deeper financial analysis of organizational health, developing financial literacy among the directors, analyzing trends, preparing long-term financial forecasts based on different strategic scenarios, bringing strategic financial issues to the attention of the board for discussion and planning
and leading the discussion on key performance indicators for the Board and then revising financial reports accordingly

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Nonprofit survey: expect to do more with less

Nonprofits expect to serve more people in 2012, yet they also anticipate reduced revenues from major funders, particularly state and federal grants and contracts, according to the 2012 State of the Sector survey from Nonprofit Finance Fund. The 2012 report extends a dramatic three-year trend of  steeply rising demand for services in the face of declining revenues. Sixty percent of those surveyed don’t believe they can meet the anticipated need for their services this year.

The survey is the latest of five conducted in two-year intervals by Nonprofit Finance Fund. While the survey does not represent a statistically valid sample of all U.S. nonprofits, the number  and diversity of respondents (4,500 nonprofit managers from representing all major nonprofit fields and a range of annual budgets) does create a revealing cross-section of American nonprofits.

The financial squeeze has been particularly tough for nonprofits addressing child poverty, housing insecurity and homelessness, hunger and other human needs that have exploded during the last four years of economic decline and dislocation. These service providers take the brunt of state and federal disinvestment in social services and penny-pinching tactics such as delayed reimbursements.

More than three quarters of nonprofits said that state and federal funding did not cover the full cost of services provided. Sixty-six percent of respondents affected by government cutbacks and shortfalls dipped into reserves to meet the excess cost of services. Among all nonprofits responding, 57 percent said they had only enough cash on hand to meet operating costs for three months or less.