Category Archives: Non-Profit Management

Eating Someone Else’s Cooking to Improve Your Own

When you finish your work day or work week what do you do with your free time? Do you spend it doing for free something you get paid for at work? Probably not, so you might wonder why someone whose full time job is working for a nonprofit organization would spend any of his precious personal time volunteering for other nonprofits. Well, in my case there are multiple reasons, like what purpose that nonprofit serves or what constituency it is helping, but one of the more selfish reasons is that it helps me identify areas in which I can improve at the day job.

A perfect example of what I’m talking about is a role I’m filling this year for a national trade association with which my organization is affiliated. I knew going in that it would be time consuming, but now that I’m halfway through the year I can tell you that I didn’t realize the half of it. There have been far more conference calls, emails, webinars and face-to-face meetings than I dreamed were possible. There have been unanticipated issues that have required extra meetings and consultations. And, of course, there have been “people being people” issues that have required a lot of attention and more than a little finessing. In other words, your average volunteer role in a trade association.

So how is this helping with my day-job performance? It’s reminding me what our volunteer leaders go through with our organization, and it’s making apparent the things I can do to make their lives easier. Here’s just a small sample:

  1. Communicate early and often, but not too often.
  2. Remember that they have day jobs and family lives, so they may not be able to respond to requests immediately and they might not remember something they’ve committed to doing, and thus you need to remind them. That’s why the first part of point #1 is so important.
  3. Make sure you save “urgent” messages for when you really need them. If everything is urgent, then they begin to believe that nothing is really urgent OR you don’t know what you’re doing. That’s why the second part of point #1 is so important.
  4. Be aware that at some point volunteers are going to feel unappreciated. Maybe not by you or your staff, but by other volunteers and the complainers in particular. The other volunteers don’t see all the time you’re putting into your role – the phone calls to discuss agenda items, the debates and decisions regarding organizational policies, the preparation for meetings, the follow up to meetings, the meetings to plan meetings, etc. After a while it grinds you down, and at some point the complaint or offhand comment from another volunteer threatens to push you over the edge. It’s amazing how a simple “thank you” or “you’re doing a great job” from someone, ANYONE, helps get you past that “f*&^ it” moment and makes all the work seem justified. It might be a good idea to have someone make that call to your leaders (of course you can do it yourself, but it’s better coming from a peer).

Much like a chef benefits from sampling other chefs’ cooking, those of us who work for volunteer led organizations can learn a lot by volunteering for other organizations. I’ve truly benefited from being the volunteer who works with staff and observing how they do things, taking notes on things they do that I don’t – and should – and noting things I wish they would do, or not do.

Here’s an interesting learning point: I’m hesitant to share with them the things I wish they would do, or not do, because I don’t want to seem like I’m telling them how to do their jobs. Yet, I’d very much appreciate my own volunteers giving me that same feedback and now I worry that they won’t/don’t for the very same reason. Thus, probably my biggest takeaway is that I need to actively solicit their feedback.

As for my fellow volunteers/members I can say without hesitation what my most significant takeaway is: no matter what I do, or how I do it, someone is going to disagree with me or dislike what I’m doing. That feedback loop is a constant and it can wear you out, so it behooves me to remember that my volunteer leaders are experiencing the exact same thing.

Note to self: increase my budget for “counseling” sessions at local watering holes.

ConvergeSouth Labs – Soooo Many Options

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So I’ve written the past couple of days about all the options that are available to ConvergeSouth attendees during the various session time slots. Well, I have to tell you that the “Labs” in the 1:45-3:45 slot are REALLY going to test my decision-making ability because I truly want to see all four. Once you read the descriptions below I think you’ll feel the same way:

Podcast Lab (Mike Dell of Podcast Help Desk) – An active podcaster and consultant for the past 10 years, Mike Dell, from Podcast Help Desk, helps people with the technical side of podcasting. For the last 6 years he has been the lead tech support for RawVoice Inc., parent company of the podcast services company Blubrry.com. He hosts a bi-weekly folk and bluegrass radio show on community radio station WNMC, and is the fill-in news announcer (and sometimes guest) on the morning rock radio show, Omelet and Friends on WKLT FM in Traverse City. In his spare time he enjoys Banjo Picking and Ham Radio.

In the podcasting lab, Mike will give you the best non-geeky explanation of how podcasting works and take you through the hardware you will need for recording. (Both good-enough and the best). We will also cover setting up the dreaded RSS feed, Website (adding podcasting to WordPress) and keeping iTunes and other podcast apps happy with your show. We will cover the best practices for podcasters. When you leave you will have a checklist of items you need to record your first episode and get it listed in iTunes and other directories. If there is time, we will do a Q & A about anything podcasting.

YouTube Lab (Stephanie Carls) – Named a “Twitter Powerhouse” by The Huffington Post, Stephanie Carls shares her passion for social media and technology online and focuses on the ways both are changing the way we live and share information. With her creativity in her videos, she has even landed features in The New York Times and NBC News.

Frequently asked to participate as a spokesperson or digital correspondent, Stephanie has enjoyed working with Cottonelle, Chevrolet (as video host for 2012 SXSW Interactive Festival, Marketwired, Nike Women, Hallmark, GoPro, Nexersys (appearing on CBS “The Doctors“) and more.

In the YouTube lab, Stephanie will give you the extra push and knowledge you need to start your own video presence. Whether that is for yourself, your business, or even both, she will cover how to set up your YouTube channel and begin your journey creating your videos. Equipment needs as well as best practices for publishing and creating your presence will be covered.

Tumblr Sites for Beginners (Ashley Hallenbeck of The Coraddi) – Ashley Hallenbeck is a designer and aspiring jack of all trades. She is the current Director of Promotions for The Coraddi, digital design and animation instructor at The Center for Visual Artists, and is a self-proclaimed sticker genius. She wholly believes that all small businesses can and should have a strong online presence, and that it’s much easier (and cheaper!) to achieve than they might think.

With $15, a little bit of sweat, and minimal tears, you can have a website up and running in a day. No short-codes, no monthly fees, no bologna; Tumblr is the perfect unlikely alternative to WordPress. Its interface is basic enough for beginners, while still being flexible enough for experienced webmasters!

What’s All the Fuss About Squarespace? (Melody Watson) – Few topics elicit more enthusiasm from Melody Watson than coaching Squarespace users to tell their stories online. Discovering this platform literally changed the course of her professional life; she left her community college webmaster position to freelance. Melody collaborates with small business owners, non-profits, and artistic professionals around the country.
Are you looking for a versatile, sophisticated tool that comes with 24/7 support and the canvas on which to create nearly any kind of site you can envision? Do yourself a favor and consider Squarespace. During this lab you will learn about:

  • Selecting the ideal template for specific site needs,
  • Choosing the appropriate kind of page for offering different types of content,
  • Formatting content,
  • Adding photos and graphics,
  • Site-wide design vs. page-based layout and design,
  • Drafting blog posts,
  • Connecting social accounts,
  • Adding a form and collecting the gathered data.

Content that doesn’t fit into the session time-frame will be provided in supplemental resources.

Impressed? I thought you’d be. So if you STILL haven’t registered but would like to you can do so here. Hope to see you there!

ConvergeSouth at 10:45 is Going to Be Happening!

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So yesterday I wrote about a tough choice I have to make – which of four great sessions would I choose to attend during the 9:30 time slot at ConvergeSouth? Well my decision is made for me during the 10:45 slot, but if you attend you’ll have to make a choice. So here’s what you have to choose from:

How to Attract, Engage and Convert With Social Media Marketing (Angela Levine of Connect Marketing) – What if there was a system to help you identify a lot of the right people for your marketing message, find them online, get them to give you their email address and eventually convert a portion of them into customers? Many business owners would be happy with JUST getting an email address – let alone one of a pre-qualified lead. Angela will show you a system for using content creation and harnessing the power of two content delivery channels to attract, engage and ultimately convert your target audience.

Field of Dreams – Great movie, terrible content strategy (Ryan Neely of SFW) – “Content is king!” “Brands are publishers!” With all the buzz about content, how can you go wrong? Before you get busy blogging, join Ryan Neely as he walks through what goes into a successful content strategy, essential questions to ask before you get started and examples of different content strategies that have proven effective.

Design in the age of Dribbble (Nick Jones of Tiny Goat) – As designers, we’re living in a time of unprecedented access to inspiration. Sites like Behance and Dribbble provide us with a constant stream of styles to quote, and frameworks like Material Design give us endless shortcuts from blank screen to finished product. So has all that access watered down design? In this talk, Nick Jones will explore the nature of inspiration and try to answer that question. This talk should be part debate for design partisans, and part survey course for design fans.

Okay, this next one is being led by yours truly so you will be forgiven if you skip it – caveat emptor and all that.

Partnerships + Creativity + Social Tools = 150,000 Meals (Jon Lowder of PTAA) – How does a local trade association with a staff of three manage to raise enough money and collect enough food for a local food bank to provide 156,000 meals to the hungry and generate great PR in the process? With creativity, volunteer engagement, partnerships with local media and other organizations, Google docs, social media and a lot of sweat.

So, that’s just one hour of the day at ConvergeSouth and as you can see there’s a lot of “there” there. This really is a great event so if you haven’t already I do recommend you register and attend. Full registration details can be found here.

Donation As Investment

Sasha Dichter has written a great post about why it is NOT bad for nonprofits to pay decent salaries for talented, hard working people or to invest in new technologies:

…we find ourselves having the same conversation, one that boils down to: is it a wasteful to pay nonprofit professionals to do their jobs well?

I wonder if it is we in the nonprofit space who need more guts when we take on this question. Maybe it’s time to say something along the lines of, “if you want your money to go directly into the hands of very poor people who need it, you should do just that and give to Give Directly.” GiveDirectly is optimized for this, they are efficient and transparent in their operations, they rigorously study their results, and they’ve shown the effectiveness of direct cash transfers for creating both short- and long-term improvements in people’s lives. It’s a completely legitimate way to help others, and it’s a great benchmark against which to measure our work.

“Or,” we should have the courage to continue, “you can have the point of view that the programmatic work that we’re doing is better than giving cash.” “Better” can be because it does different things (fights corruption); “better” can be because the impact of giving a dollar is more than $1 (investing in a scalable social business); “better” can be because of long-term return on investing that’s higher than the social return on giving cash (supporting a child’s education).

“But,” we should be sure to say, “if you believe that the IT that we do matters, if you believe that there is something real that we are bringing to the table that goes above and beyond your money ending up in the hands of someone who will benefit from it, then you’re saying that our judgment, our relationships, our expertise, our capacity for oversight, and our ability to create leverage for each dollar you give is real. This means that you trust this judgement and our expertise. So please give in a way that respects that judgment and expertise, or don’t give at all.”

He references a TED talk on the same subject that’s an essential watch for anyone interested in how we can make sure the nonprofit sector can deliver the goods and services that are increasingly in demand. Here’s a link to it and I highly recommend you watch it.

While I do work for a nonprofit, it’s a trade association so it truly feels much more like a business. Our members pay dues and we provide services and products to help their companies and industry at large succeed. Basically our members see us as more of a business and while we do sometimes have to defend our compensation it isn’t viewed as morally wrong for our staff members to be paid a decent wage. On the other hand the “feel good” nonprofits that are addressing a social need, like the food bank I often volunteer with, often are judged harshly if they pay a competitive wage because every dollar they spend on compensation is seen as a dollar not spent on food.

As Dichter points out this is faulty logic. If you pay a competitive wage and invest in good tools then you can attract and retain talented, dedicated people who, properly armed, can work magic with those dollars and generate a return that is many times greater than the dollar given. Take the food bank example – would you rather go to the store and spend a dollar that would buy one can of soup on sale, or donate it to an organization that could turn it into seven full meals? That’s the kind of thing that well run nonprofits can do.

This isn’t to say that nonprofits shouldn’t be monitored and evaluated to make sure they’re providing the best possible service for the communities they serve. It is to say that if a nonprofit is delivering the goods, so to speak, that there is nothing inherently wrong with the people doing the good work making a decent living or with them being provided adequate tools to do their jobs.

Anyone who has spent time volunteering with a social nonprofit has likely seen the effects that poor pay and lack of capital investment can have on an organization. People who spend 80 hours a week doing something they truly believe in, but are hamstrung because they’re using outdated technology that was likely donated, and barely make enough money to keep food on their own tables, much less save money for retirement or their kids’ college education, tend to burnout and that leads to turnover. Turnover leads to increased hiring expenses and a loss of expertise that puts even more pressure on the staff and volunteers who are left to do the work, which leads to more turnover, and so on, and so on, and so on.

Please, the next time you hear someone criticize the pay of a nonprofit staff, or question the wisdom of buying a new computer, tablet, truck, etc. please try put it in perspective by looking at the big picture. If the organization is barely serving anyone while the senior executive is tooling around in a new Mercedes leased by the organization, then by all means ask a lot of hard questions. But if the organization is meeting a community’s needs, if it’s returning multiple dollars of service for every dollar donated, then support their efforts and find a way to help them do even more.

The Importance of Good Governance

*Update 1/26/16* – Well it took a while, but they’ve indicted Powell on four felony charges. They’re Class C felonies because more than $100,000 is involved. I’m going to guess that PTP’s governance processes have been tightened significantly.*

News broke today that the former CEO of the Piedmont Triad Partnership is being investigated for financial irregularities stemming from his time at the organization. From the Triad Business Journal:

In a prepared statement released at noon today, the regional economic development group said the following:

“The Piedmont Triad Partnership has provided law enforcement authorities information about financial irregularities involving former CEO David M. Powell. When PTP learned of the irregularities following Mr. Powell’s resignation earlier this year, it immediately began its own assessment of what had happened and what amount of money is at issue. That assessment is ongoing.”…

“We’re taking this issue very seriously,” said Stanhope Kelly, who took over as CEO of PTP from Powell. “We will get to the bottom of this, and ensure it does not happen again. At the same time, the Triad needs jobs, and the Piedmont Triad Partnership’s primary goal is to attract jobs. And we’ll keep working to make good things happen in economic development.”

This caught my eye for a few reasons. First, PTP’s office is literally right across the street from where I work so it hits close to home. Second, I work for a non-profit and am in the equivalent role for my organization that Powell was for his.

Total aside – I was curious what Powell made and what kind of budget PTP had so I pulled up their 1099 from 2013. I’d say they took good care of him, because with salary plus benefits his compensation came to a little over $325k from an organization that had about $1.8 million in revenue that year.

Third, I know who’s on this board and if it ends up that there were financial irregularities with that board overseeing the organization then you can rest assured that it can happen to anyone.

Because no one owns a nonprofit the members of the board play the critical role of representing the interests of the organization as a whole, and by extension the interests of all of the organization’s constituencies. As you can imagine one of every board’s primary functions is to make sure that the organization’s resources, particularly financial, are sufficient enough for the organization to fulfill its mission. With some nonprofits that can be a challenge because the board members may not have the financial or business acumen necessary to truly understand what’s going on. A prime example would be a local food pantry with a board made up of passionate, mission-focused people who may have never seen a balance sheet in their lives.

The board for the PTP is the opposite. It’s comprised of business VIPs, mayors, bank executives and the like. If any board is loaded with people who are sophisticated enough to smell a financial rat this is it, yet they might have had money misappropriated on their watch. Now this story just broke and there could very well be a good explanation for whatever they found, but it’s also a healthy reminder that any organization can fall victim to malfeasance.

In the nonprofit world the topic of governance often gets the groans and eye rolls you usually associate with discussing taxes or budgets at home. We all recognize it’s important, a necessary evil if you will, but we usually dread doing anything about it. That’s too bad because from the perspective of the nonprofit executive and staff it really should be something we embrace. If nothing else it protects us from ourselves; if we make an honest mistake we stand a good chance of our board catching it before we get too far down the road. If we have a staff member that is taking advantage of a weakness in our systems we stand a better chance of catching it if we’re constantly vigilant because our board is demanding it of us. Is it drudgery sometimes? Sure. But in my mind the whole purpose of governance is to acknowledge the inherent weaknesses we all have as humans and to protect our organizations from them.

Now, I’m gonna go do a double check of the books at work to make sure I’m not casting stones while living in a glass house.

How We Think About Charity is Wrong

This is a fantastic TED presentation by Dan Pallotta on why the non-profit industry is perpetually hamstrung by its inability, among other things, to break out of a structure that limits compensation, suppresses risk-taking, prohibits access to capital markets, imposes frugality at the expense of future growth potential and tags all overhead as negative.  It’s a must-watch for anyone in the non-profit sector, but the charitable arm of the non-profit sector in particular.

Here’s a link to the full transcript and a couple of excerpts that really hit home:

So in the for-profit sector, the more value you produce, the more money you can make. But we don’t like nonprofits to use money to incentivize people to produce more in social service. We have a visceral reaction to the idea that anyone would make very much money helping other people. Interesting that we don’t have a visceral reaction to the notion that people would make a lot of money not helping other people. You know, you want to make 50 million dollars selling violent video games to kids, go for it. We’ll put you on the cover of Wired magazine. But you want to make half a million dollars trying to cure kids of malaria, and you’re considered a parasite yourself…

Businessweek did a survey, looked at the compensation packages for MBAs 10 years of business school, and the median compensation for a Stanford MBA, with bonus, at the age of 38, was 400,000 dollars. Meanwhile, for the same year, the average salary for the CEO of a $5 million-plus medical charity in the U.S. was 232,000 dollars, and for a hunger charity, 84,000 dollars. Now, there’s no way you’re going to get a lot of people with $400,000 talent to make a $316,000 sacrifice every year to become the CEO of a hunger charity.

Some people say, “Well, that’s just because those MBA types are greedy.” Not necessarily. They might be smart. It’s cheaper for that person to donate 100,000 dollars every year to the hunger charity, save 50,000 dollars on their taxes, so still be roughly 270,000 dollars a year ahead of the game, now be called a philanthropist because they donated 100,000 dollars to charity, probably sit on the board of the hunger charity, indeed, probably supervise the poor SOB who decided to become the CEO of the hunger charity,and have a lifetime of this kind of power and influence and popular praise still ahead of them…

So we’ve all been taught that charities should spend as little as possible on overhead things like fundraising under the theory that, well, the less money you spend on fundraising, the more money there is available for the cause. Well, that’s true if it’s a depressing world in which this pie cannot be made any bigger. But if it’s a logical world in which investment in fundraising actually raises more funds and makes the pie bigger, then we have it precisely backwards, and we should be investing more money, not less, in fundraising, because fundraising is the one thing that has the potential to multiply the amount of moneyavailable for the cause that we care about so deeply…

This is what happens when we confuse morality with frugality. We’ve all been taught that the bake sale with five percent overhead is morally superior to the professional fundraising enterprise with 40 percent overhead, but we’re missing the most important piece of information, which is, what is the actual size of these pies? Who cares if the bake sale only has five percent overhead if it’s tiny? What if the bake sale only netted 71 dollars for charity because it made no investment in its scale and the professional fundraising enterprise netted 71 million dollars because it did? Now which pie would we prefer, and which pie do we think people who are hungry would prefer?