By Jon Howard

“Democracy is not an app”

For three days at Netroots Nation 2012, a festival of online media and innovative tech in the service of progressive politics (June 7-9 in Providence, RI), I stuffed my head.

I gazed into the infinite depths of Google Analytics, pondered how to run useful A/B testing on Facebook and absorbed tips that promised to squeeze my every insight into a tight viral bomb of social media.

Each new tool and technique opened up exciting new possibilities. Yet each new app and opportunity demanded time and attention I’d already committed to something else. By the third day, I felt stretched.

Early Saturday, I wandered into a small knot of early arrivers at the convention center, groggy from Friday night revelry. I was balancing coffee in one hand and an iPhone in the other, trying to recall every insight of the last 48 hours while planning for the day’s sessions. Like everyone around me, I monitored the live discussion with one ear, while really focusing on the tiny screen and keypad in my hand.

Then something penetrated. One of the panelists, Van Jones of Rebuild the Dream told us, “I’ve got news for you: democracy is not an app.”

Van Jones

Jones said that no matter how many views, clicks or retweets we get, the results that matter still happen in the voting booth, in the legislative halls and on the streets. He urged us to “climb into that screen” and take real action to influence the events so many people spend so much time merely reacting to online.

I thought about our grassroots clients at Cause & Effect. Community centers and homeless shelters, land trusts and children’s theaters. Most of them have web sites. Some have Facebook pages. But very few have an active engagement with the online world or any strategy to achieve it.

Yet, our clients feed and house and educate real children. They save and protect real rivers and trees. They hold live performances witdh real audiences. They bring real constituents together face to face and raise real dollars. They do these things every day.

Of course, they could and should get even better results with an effective social media strategy.  But not if they let mere tools distract them from real work and real results.

I put my iPhone back in my pocket and listened to Van Jones with all my attention. I felt better immediately.

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.

You can’t hurry love… or collaborative fundraising

A collaborative capital campaign created an entire new arts and business district in Cleveland. Photo: Gordon Square Arts District

Collaborative fundraising takes time and trust. That’s what we heard over and again in our interviews with seven nonprofit executives in Rhode Island, Boston, Cleveland and Spokane, each of them successful collaborative fundraisers.

We looked into the topic at the prompting of our friends at New Roots Providence and presented our early findings at a New Roots workshop on January 19.

The short version of what we learned from our informants:

  • Successful collaborations flow from a deep process of trust-building among the partners. The right partners may take years to self-select, discover their shared goals and commit to combined action.
  • Detailed legal agreements help establish trust and smooth functioning by exploring and resolving the partners’ deepest worries in advance. (These also take time)
  • At the same time, good partners must be ready to make commonsense adjustments to agreements when they create unfair or unproductive results for some partners.
  • Long-term and permanent collaborations need to form an independent organization to fundraise and distribute revenues. (Another time-consuming process.)
  • The collaborative case must promise more than the sum of its partners: new funders respond to a transformative vision.
  • Truly successful collaborations can reach more and larger funders and generate more income at lower cost than the two partners could achieve separately.

Our cases covered five forms of joint fundraising: grants, workplace campaigns, events, capital campaigns, and, finally, our elusive ideal of truly integrated annual fundraising. We’ll tell you more about three very interesting cases in future posts:

  • The YWCA and YMCA in Spokane, Washington created a fully integrated capital campaign to build new shared buildings in two locations.
  • The Gordon Square Arts District in Cleveland, Ohio brought two theater companies together with a community development organization to build not just theaters, but a whole theater-oriented arts district with major economic benefits for the city.
  • The Central Square Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts began by building new shared performance space for the the Nora Theater Company and the Underground Railway Theater. The partnership then went on to take on all fundraising, business and back office operations, leaving both groups free to focus on their artistic missions alone.

If you have had a good – or bad – experience with collaborative fundraising that you think could help others, please send me an email. We’d love to hear from you.

Phil-rat-thropy: Altruism for animals

One of my all-time favorite bumper stickers was this one: “I am an animal. I brake for no one.” (A cynical comeback to the once-common “I brake for animals.)

However,  it looks like our basic animal nature actually includes a generous dollop of do-goodism, judging from this NPR Morning Edition report. Lab rats at the University of Chicago have now proven to the satisfaction of scientists that they will sacrifice themselves to spend hours of persistent effort to free another rat trapped inside a small tube within the larger cages.

Not only do helper rats selflessly devote themselves to comforting their stuck buddy, they also work urgently to find the hidden button that springs the trap. They’ll do this even when the other rat gets released to a different cage, removing any social benefit. They’ll even help a pal when they could be working on liberating chocolate instead!

The scientists were thrilled to have discovered such pure altruism in another species. (I guess they never read Old Yeller.)

Let’s take this as a reminder to give our  left brains a break as we compose our year-end and other funding appeals. Before you start to pile up facts and arguments, seek out your organization’s deeper appeal to our basic natures as creatures on earth: “Here’s another person in pain. Here’s how you can make it better.”

And then there’s this: Even though I really do brake for others, I am still an animal.