At some point in every Batman comic book, tv show, or movie, Batman retires to the giant batcave under his mansion. And in his “Batcave” he refuels the Batmobile, he gets some food from Alfred the Butler, he uses the giant Batcomputer, maybe he runs some tests in the Batlabratory or synthesizes some antidote.
All of this leads to some massive revelation that refocuses the World’s Greatest Detective on the challenge presented to him in that issue/episode/film. It’s usually the breakthrough moment in the story. Everything else from that point on is Batman winning unreservedly.
No one in Gotham ever sees this. To them, Batman is the Caped Crusader running around at night responding to the Bat Signal and being a superhero. There’s no boring laboratory Batman, or Batman hunched in a desk chair flipping through databases. Batman is all action and impact, and the strategy and thought are invisible. They don’t see the most important part, they only see the outcome.
Why am I talking about Batman on a blog that’s meant largely for nonprofits and consultants?
We get into charity work to make the difference, to be heroes in our own way. There aren’t superheroes in real life, there’s only advocates and activists and dreamers. We see these people making their difference, and many of us jump in with both feet expecting to make the same difference. And many of us fail.
It’s because we don’t put the time into building our Batcaves. The part people see is only half the work. As much, if not more, time and resources go into the Batcave as the crime-fighting. If you want to be smart, if you want to be performing your mission for years to come, you need a database. An Alfred to fuel up the Batmobile. The place where you examine and reevaluate your strategy.
You need a Batcave.
Innovation and Scaling for Impact won the Terry McAdam Book Award in the fall of 2018.
The pair have been studying innovation for years. When asked by a large international foundation to help them assess the capacity of NGOs for continuous innovation, they had to ask why this is even a desired goal. We all find that funders and business leaders are pushing nonprofits to “innovate” more.
Not so fast, say Seelos and Mair.
Innovation is hard.
- Quoting James March from Stanford University: “Most new ideas are bad ideas.”
- If your NGO expects success immediately from innovation you are likely to be frustrated. But if learning is a key objective for your attempts at innovation, you will not fail.
- Innovation and scaling are not the same.
- It is not innovation that creates impact, but the scaling of the innovation.
- Understand how innovation is part of a long term strategy.
- Push back against funders that are too focused on quick fixes and too much innovation. Help funders understand organizational realities.
- Be a good scaler first.. stay close to the problem, fine tune it, prototype changes, assess them, keep looking for reasons why it might not work, keep your eyes open to unintended consequences, positive and negative.
Within any innovation process there are six types of uncertainties to pay attention to:
- Problem and context: Do you really understand your problem? Do you really understand the circumstances surrounding your problem?
- Solution: What resources and requirement are necessary to support any solution.
- Adoption: Will others take up the innovation?
- Consequence: What are the side effects? Are there unintended negative or positive consequences of the innovation?
- Identity: Perhaps the innovation is successful, but it distracts your organization from its core mission, from addressing the problem you were attempting to solve.
Try to clear the hurdles or pathologies of innovation to open possibilities in your organization:
- Never starting
- Managing too many bad ideas
- Stopping too early
- Stopping too late
- Insufficient exploitation, e.g. not scaling and learning from the scaling.
- Innovating again too soon.
While the examples are from South Asia, the book is worth a read for any nonprofit.
Thank you to the Nonprofit Support Program of the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving for hosting a great workshop yesterday with Lindsay Bealko of Toolkit Consulting on the strategy of nonprofit technology.
I think it is safe to say that none of the consultants in the room needed a lot of convincing to recognize the impact of quickly shifting technology innovations on our clients. For smaller nonprofits, it’s always a challenge to keep up.
But Lindsay reminded us not to get caught in the maelstrom of products and approaches.
Focus on the strategy of your technology first! As Lindsay said, the “so what” of technology matters — and this slide quickly illustrates what the point of using technology should be.
Can you think of an area of nonprofit functioning where technology doesn’t enhance or hold you back? I’d include finance, fundraising, program delivery, measurement and evaluation, community engagement, communications both inside and outside of your organization, media relations, revenue collection, even governance.
We found Lindsay’s 3 level framework for investment extremely compelling:
- Start with your basic infrastructure. Does it work? Is it secure? Do you have ongoing investments needed to stay stable. Then,
- Integrate technology to enhance your service delivery. Then, if you have the bandwidth,
- Innovate. How can technology to create greater impact for your mission?
Beware our clients! We’ll be ramping up attention to technology in our strategic planning work. It’s always been included, especially as we do fundraising planning, but we are going to push you harder in this area of your strategy and planning.
Many kudos once again to NSP for not only hosting this workshop for consultants, but for providing nonprofits in the Greater Hartford area with the funding and technical consulting to assess their technology needs and develop strategic technology plans.
The Terry McAdam Book Award is given annually. It honors an innovative book that advances the field of non-profit capacity building. Books chosen for review have been published in the last two years, are not textbooks and are available commercially.
And the 2017 winner is:
Innovation and Scaling for Impact by Christian Seelos and Johanna Mair. Stanford University Press.
The authors examine these two concepts in more detail, making important distinctions between them.
Here’s what the review Committee said about this book:
“In their eye-opening book, Seelos and Mair bring clarity to the differences between innovation and scaling, as well as the relationship of one to the other. While still encouraging levels of appropriate risk, they argue persuasively that nonprofits should focus far more resources on scaling programs they know have positive outcomes than on innovating where uncertainty about outcomes could drain resources.
“The authors provide guidance and worksheets to help leaders determine where innovation is appropriate. They identify types and levels of uncertainty, and incorporate lessons learned. They also emphasize the importance of scaling successful innovations for the benefit of an organization’s constituents. While case studies focus on larger international NGOs, leaders of smaller and domestic nonprofits will also find this book valuable.”
Past winners have included some books you may know:
- The Sustainability Mindset: Using the Matrix Map to Make Strategic Decisions by Steve Zimmerman and Jeanne Bell
- Content Marketing for Nonprofits: A Communications Map for Engaging Your Community, Becoming a Favorite Cause, and Raising More Money by Kivi Leroux Miller
- Measuring the Networked Nonprofit: Using Data to Change the World by Beth Kanter and Katie Delahaye Paine
It was a privilege to serve on the committee. The choice of a winner was not easy as there were quite a number of valuable books. Over the next few weeks I’ll share a few other books you might want to put on your reading list.
Yes, the election left me gobsmacked.
But this is no time to act like a deer in the headlights. Hundreds in my community and across the US are already thinking and planning to prepare to act strategically.
You don’t have to be for or against the incoming administration to recognize that a lot is going to change.
As a board and strategy consultant, I’m troubled that very few of the boards with whom I’m working are talking about planning for scenarios that might be heading their way. While front line advocacy organizations are already moving forward, I’m not seeing discussions happening in very many other sectors.
I understand that there is considerable uncertainty. I recognize that it might feel like a waste of time to talk about the unknown.
But isn’t that your job as a governing board? Shouldn’t you be considering best case, worst case and starting to prepare a plan of action? Haven’t you enough evidence of the policy changes that are likely to be made to start planning for those changes?
Your board has a lot of thinking and planning to do.
Need an example? We’ve already in a profoundly new world order. Jobs are vanishing fast, not necessarily because of global trade, but because what can be automated will. And there are very few jobs that can’t be automated.
What does this mean for your clients? What about your donors? Your community? Your employees?
Here’s another: How is the shifting landscape of philanthropic giving affecting your organization, where the rich are giving more and the rest of everyone less?
And the big one: What policies have the new administration and the majority party been championing over the last eight years or eight months? How will that affect us?
If there was every a time for both strategic and generative thinking, it’s now.
When the proverbial sh*t hits the fan, it may be too late to mobilize a satisfactory response.
- I’ve felt that way at least three times before in my voting life. But yes, this one seems completely different. Having been a member of Amnesty International for more than four decades, I’ve read the stories on how democracy can be lost seemingly overnight.
This week I’m teaching successful grant seeking in my Management of Cultural Institutions class at Brown University.
While perusing materials from a number of trainings Jon and I have taught on the subject, I found a handout entitled Secrets of Successful Grant Seeking.
You may have heard grant proposal writers say that 80% of the success in grant seeking happens before you ever lay fingers to keyboard. Just sending an out -of-the-blue proposal into cyberspace is usually like playing the lottery.
Here are a lucky 13 strategies that will help raise your potential for success.
- Design and implement quality programs – that’s what it’s all about, right?
- Cherish results and learning – measure, evaluate, revise, adapt. Funders want to fund organizations whose work is making a difference.
- Build strong peer relationships and partnerships: because it’s the right thing to do and because funders often turn to them as references for your organization or proposal.
- Keep your promises to your funders. Most funders understand when new programs may not achieving their desired results. But they are not very tolerant when you don’t do what you said you would do, especially if you haven’t communicated with them.
- Engage the ultimate decision-makers at family and corporate foundations.
- Cultivate knowledge and relationships with your program officer.
- Find connections and build relationships with potential funders. Seeing is ususally better than reading.
- Find donor value in your programs by discovering hidden value or bundling projects for maximum impact.
- Speak to your funder’s world view – understand how they see the world and their theory of change.
- Or yes, have a theory of change that is explicit and defendable.
- Create newness by incorporating new issues into existing programs, offering new audiences for donor portfolios, or developing new programs from what you have learned
- Be a thought leader in your field and communicate like one.
- Think and plan ahead — grants funding cycles are long and future oriented.
And when you do get to writing your proposal, follow the funder’s required format.
What’s on your list?
If you’ve been lost about how to measure the intrinsic impact of your arts or culture program on your audiences, remember these five terms:
- Emotional Resonance
- Intellectual Stimulation
- Aesthetic Enrichment
- Social Bridging and Bonding
These five categories come via Jennifer Novak-Leonard, Research Manager at Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago. Jennifer was in Rhode Island courtesy of Catalyzing Newport, a collaborative project funded by the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities and the van Beuren Charitable Trust.
Jennifer walked us through both a historical and contemporary look at research on arts audiences and their participation (including snapshots of data from from her 2015 study “The Cultural Lives of Californians: Insights from the California Survey of Arts & Cultural Participation,” which showed that folks lives are highly engaged in the arts, but much of that activity is outside of traditional arts organizations).
If you’ve been challenged to assess your value, and have resisted or simply hated being forced into measuring your organization or programming based on its economic impact, Jennifer presented a number of frameworks for assessing impact from the individual to the community.
I particularly appreciated these constructs for measuring the impact of an arts experiences on an individual. The crazy photo above is from our January visit to the Rubin Museum of Art in NYC. I thought I’d apply just one of the measures, Captivation, to my own experience using Jennifer’s questions.
- How absorbed were you in the experience?
- Did you lose track of time?
I distinctly remember at least three times during that visit when time did stand still. One was viewing the magnificent Steve McCurry photos, another was watching an entrancing video of a Jain ceremony that involved folks on scaffolding pouring successions of pigments over a towering Buddha, and the third was trying on the video masks representing masks from the collection that you see in the photo.
As you know, I’m one for measuring what matters, and for so much of our sector, what matters is how the lives of individual people get better, even for just a moment in time.
So check out these studies measuring the impact of your arts or culture program. Even if you aren’t working in a cultural institution, I think you’ll find much to think about.
I was cleaning old files a few days ago when I stumbled across the beloved “Governance is Governance” by Kenneth N. Dayton.
If you are too young to know this monograph, it’s the text of a keynote address to a professional forum hosted by Independent Sector’s Effective Leadership and Management Program given in May 1985 and published in 1987.
I was delighted to find it and read it again. As someone who works with many nonprofit boards and executive directors, the simplicity and clarity of the advice continues to ring true.
Here’s Dayton’s Function of the Board of Directors:
“As representatives of the public, be the primary force pressing the institution to the realization of its opportunities for service and the fulfillment of its obligations to all its constituents.”
And his Function of the President and CEO (that is, chief staff officer/executive director)
“1. Serve as the Chief Executive Officer of the institution, reporting to the board of directors, accepting responsibility for the success or failure of the enterprise. (emphasis added)
“2. With the Chair of the Board, enable the Board of Trustees to fulfill its governance function, and facilitate the optimum interaction between management and the Board.
“3. Give direction to the formulation [of] and leadership to the achievement of the institution’s philosophy, mission, and strategy, and to its annual objectives and goals.”
You can find the full monograph online at the url below.
Reading and discussing this would make for the great start of a board retreat.
In this work, we constantly challenge organizations to think deeply.
To do that, staff and board members need to start their planning with a true sense of inquiry.
So we encourage lots of questions:
- What do you already know about your challenges, opportunities and needs?
- What is your dream for your clients? for your community?
- What is the best work happening in your field? How is that different from what you are doing? The same?
- Why is it that you do the work in the way you do? What evidence do you have for this?
- What does your community need — do you really know?
- What is your special role in meeting that need?
- What will get you to your community impact the most effectively?
- How much stronger could you be if you included others in your journey?
- What values won’t you compromise along the way?
- What capacity do you need to build to get you where we want to go?
- How much will that cost? What’s the plan to get there?
Seeking out data, talking to others, grappling with questions, pursuing answers, creating frameworks, crunching numbers — that is the strategic planning.
The written report codifies that thinking to guide your future.
If we “stress test” this strategic plan – borrowing the idea from banking, how would recent decisions our organization made align with this plan?”
Stress testing is a simulation used to test how banks will fare against a series of scenarios. During our planning process, our committee explored future shifts. The suggestion of looking backward against recent decisions was well-received.
What followed was a robust and thoughtful Read more